Every time there is a mass shooting, news quickly centers around efforts to regulate guns. But regardless of how the discussion about this very loaded political question goes, it’s always access to gun information that pays the price.
As our cover story explores, the shooting of young children in Newtown, Conn., led a newspaper in New York to publish information from the state’s gun permit records. Not just some information, but all of the details, down to the addresses of those with guns in their homes.
The backlash was incredible, and will set back public access to important information for a long time. At least 11 states have undertaken efforts to roll back access to gun permit data.
And the most troubling part is that the sentiment that led to closure here is the same one we see time and time again, as legislators decide that “personal” information should be categorically exempt from disclosure, regardless of the fact that this data represents the documentation of exactly what our governments are doing and for whom.
When we let this data be closed, the end result is that governments granting certain privileges to individuals in secret, which runs counter to our country’s democratic principles. The process of giving out gun permits is a state licensing scheme; it’s not only newsworthy, but journalists can keep tabs on whether the system is working and keeping guns out of dangerous individuals’ hands.
It should go without saying that journalists who want to report on particular controversies often need access to government records to tell the full story. But there is also a good argument for access beyond the individual record, to gain access to complete databases to survey the field in a particular area.
Usually, this bulk data is used in an aggregated fashion to get at a big-picture view of a problem. When reporters use these records to figure out, say, whether home invasions, burglaries, or even accidental shootings are higher or lower in areas with a lot of homeowners who have guns, they can tell us meaningful stories.
But bulk data can also be used to make a wide swath of information directly available to the public. And these “data dumps” of raw information have been controversial not just with the general public, but within the journalism community itself.
Many reporters believe that passing on raw data has nothing to do with journalism; journalists are the ones who are supposed to sort through it and give it meaning beyond mere numbers. And when the release of the collections of raw data leads to a privacy-inspired backlash, everyone suffers, and the blame is fixed on those who released too much.
Regardless of how you come out on this issue, it is obviously essential to fight for the right of access to bulk data and complete databases. The field of computer-assisted reporting is relatively new when examined within the timeline of how long journalists have been collecting government data to report the news, but the field grows by leaps and bounds every year. Statistical analyses of data let journalists compare their communities to neighboring areas in health care, education, crime and much more, or just report how their citizens are being served by government or affected by trends and other factors.
This means that it is essential for reporters to continue to fight for access to bulk records. Governments will always want to restrict this type of access, either making the requesters justify their need for the information or trying to limit what can be done with it. Courts that release bulk data often require the services that provide access to that data to keep it up to date and to delete or update records that have been changed by the courts. Some of these restrictions make sense, but ultimately, it has to be left up to the journalists who want to make use of public information how they will keep it and relay it to the public.
Anything less is simply a decision to vest the power of public knowledge with the government, which may sometimes be truly looking out for the interests of citizens, but often is simply trying to avoid the accountability that comes with meaningful access to records.