N.Y. newspaper's decision raises questions for industry, public
by Jessica Loeding
Jan 06, 2013 | 611 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Last month, the Journal News — a newspaper serving the suburbs of New York City — created buzz when it published online a map with the names and addresses of pistol permit holders in two counties. Now, the newspaper’s request for information from a third county has been denied. The county clerk, with the backing of county officials, justified his refusal by saying releasing the information would endanger the public.

The newspaper plans to pursue the information, which is accessible to the public under New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

The president of the New York News Publishers Association has reached out to the Journal News’ publisher offering support. Should the issue proceed to court, the woman has said member newspapers would file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Journal News, according to an Associated Press story.

For newspapers in the state of Georgia, the decision is much simpler.

Georgia does not require gun owners to register their weapon. Sheriff Clark Millsap said public officials are notified of a gun purchase through dealers and pawn shops only when a convicted felon attempts to purchase a firearm, which is against the law.

Under Official Code of Georgia Annotated 50-18-72(a), a list of exemptions are made to the state’s Open Records Act.

One of those exemptions is for firearm licenses. Records maintained by the Probate Court of any county for weapons carry permits or other documents relating to the possession of firearms are exempt from disclosure.

As a journalist, I have been asked if The Daily Tribune News would publish something similar to the Journal News. No.

Neither Publisher Johnette Dawson nor I see any news value in releasing the names and addresses of permit holders. Printing such information is an invasion of privacy and could make a resident the target of theft or other criminals.

Information available under the Freedom of Information Act and open records laws is vital to the public and newspapers. Access to documents, emails and phone records helps keep government transparent. Taxpayers have a right to know what occurs within government.

Journalists, whether established news media or citizen journalists, however, have great responsibility when releasing that information. We must consider the news value of the story and what the repercussions of that decision may be.

Printing information about citizens in the aftermath of a tragedy such as Sandy Hook simply does not cut it with me, but fear is a powerful motivator. The media’s job is not to prey on the public — it is to offer an unbiased report of the news.

No doubt the New York county will have a difficult time defending the refusal and the Journal News will prevail. A hollow victory for open records laws and a loss for the residents whose names and addresses will be released for no other reason than they own a weapon.

Jessica Loeding is the managing editor of The Daily Tribune News.