Journalism professor Howard Good of SUNY-New Paltz has written a piece with the sombre title “Teaching Ethics in a Dark World” (subscribers only) for the Chronicle of Higher Education. A teacher of a course in media ethics, he was called by a New York Times reporter in late December, and asked to comment on the online publication, by the suburban White Plains newspaper The Journal News, of a map of handgun permit holders in New York’s Westchester and Rockland counties. Let’s allow Good to take the story from there:
I told the reporter that The Journal News was within its legal rights to publish the map, but that publishing it was only a first step. To ethically justify publication, the paper would have to push forward with consistent, in-depth coverage of gun violence. The news media in general had to keep a hand on the horn until policy makers as well as the public woke up and attended to the problem. We shouldn’t be allowed to forget Newtown with the ease that we had been allowed to forget Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Aurora. . . .
I spoke with the reporter, who was up against a deadline, for about 10 minutes. The story that appeared the next morning omitted at least 99.9 percent of our conversation. My contribution to public enlightenment consisted of a single remark shorn of context and nuance and stuck in a bottom paragraph that begged to go unread.
Here’s what the Times actually published of what he said, on December 27:
Howard Good, a professor of media ethics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said that given the fierce debate over guns, such databases were a worthy endeavor for news organizations. But Professor Good said the coverage must also address public policy.
“It’s not enough to put images out there that provoke a visceral reaction,” he said.
Then critics of the Journal News, figuring that sauce is tasty on both geese and ganders, got hold of some reporters’ and editors’ home addresses, and published those online. Now Professor Good got a call from Reuters, which paraphrased him on December 29 as “call[ing] the critics’ response childish and petulant,” and quoted him thus:
“It doesn’t move the issue of gun control to the level of intelligent public discussion,” he said. “Instead, it transforms what should be a rational public debate on a contentious issue into ugly gutter fighting.”
As Good continues the tale in the Chronicle:
The information the paper had published was public record, I added, and, if presented in the appropriate context, served a legitimate public interest. Publishing the names and addresses of the journalists had no similar justification. It was plainly an attempt to intimidate the press, and intimidation doesn’t promote democracy.
I know. Brilliant. If I had intended to incite every reactionary with access to a computer to e-mail me, I couldn’t have put it better.
What happened after the publication of each story where he was quoted, Good says, was that he got a lot of angry e-mail, and negative comments on blogs, from people who thought the newspaper had acted badly, that he had been wrong to defend its actions, and (after the second story) that he had been wrong to think the publication of journalists’ addresses was a different thing altogether.
Some of the messages, Good says, were truly ugly and vitriolic, and made his heart skip a beat. Granted, it’s not pleasant being called “moron,” or “douchebag,” or a “liberal bigot,” or “cowardly.” But none of the stuff Good quotes from his inbox (or from blog comment sections) was an actual threat to his life, limb, family, or property. Nasty? Yes. Dangerous? Not really. Professor Good has learned how passionate people can be when they think others—including himself—have behaved badly. But judging from the evidence he presents, he has only been on the receiving end of some “shouted” imprecations, nothing worse. If so, then he is plainly over-reacting to garden-variety rudeness, and any of us who write about neuralgic issues could show him plenty worse from our own inboxes.
But this is not nearly as interesting as the poor judgment Good displays in his own field of journalistic ethics—judgment so poor that it is hard not to sympathize with his angry critics, even if we dislike their tone.
I will grant up front that the home addresses of reporters and editors should not be published online in a fashion that says, in effect, “hey, bub, we know where you live.” Still, Good is too smugly certain that, unlike the address-posting retaliators, the Journal News did nothing wrong—and can even make its deed part of a great and good thing—when it published the names and addresses of private citizens who own handguns in two New York counties.
The observation that these are “public records” is a dodge. Thanks to New York’s draconian local gun laws, residents must obtain a permit merely to own a handgun legally (we’re not talking about concealed-carry permits). The local governments keep records of permits issued, which can be inspected like many other public records if you pay the office a visit.
It’s a fair question whether this openness of the records is a good idea, since it is not really your neighbors’ business whether you have a gun in your home. But the local authorities, while making the records “public” and available on request, do not publish them. For it is certainly not the business of your criminal neighbors, who will now know with a mouse-click, thanks to a nosy newspaper with an ideological axe to grind, that a) you could be armed if your house is broken into while you’re present, and b) a gun worth stealing is perhaps there for the taking when you are out.
Whatever might be worth saying in the local paper about how many handguns there are in the local community, it is not the least bit newsworthy that John Q. Citizen of 123 Grove Avenue, who is minding his own business, has a permit to own a handgun. If you publish that fact, you have invaded his privacy to no good purpose.
Good’s idea of what journalism is about, like that of the Journal News, has a particularly ideological odor about it, as he explains what makes this gratuitous publication of hundreds of citizens’ private business worthwhile. Look again at part of what I quote above from his Chronicle essay:
To ethically justify publication, the paper would have to push forward with consistent, in-depth coverage of gun violence. The news media in general had to keep a hand on the horn until policy makers as well as the public woke up and attended to the problem.
Yes, the noble ends justify the intrusive means. We can “ethically justify” a mass invasion of the privacy of non-newsworthy individuals if it serves the greater good of “waking up” the public and policy makers to seeing that the widespread ownership of firearms is a Very Bad Thing.
To Professor Good, people who get upset about journalism this hostile to their lives and liberties—and who get upset when professors who teach “media ethics” deploy ideological categories in place of ethical ones—are “reactionaries” and “anti-intellectual.” Throughout his Chronicle essay, he complains of the ideological rancor of his critics, while displaying quite as much rancor himself for his fellow citizens who disagree with him on a sensitive public policy issue.
The hate in Professor Good’s inbox is no excuse for his screed. Bad judgment and naked bias about the purposes of journalism will bring him more of the same, every time. Time to learn how to reason about ethics without the ideology.