Bob Davis: Records that build trust
Jan 13, 2013 | 2625 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
(Photo: Seth Wenig/Associated Press/File)
(Photo: Seth Wenig/Associated Press/File)
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On Dec. 23, a newspaper covering a suburban area of New York City did what many community newspapers do. It took a topic of intense national interest and brought it home to a local coverage area. In newspaper parlance, we call it “localizing” a news story.

In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre and the ensuing debate over firearms and gun violence, the Journal News of Westchester and Rockland counties in New York published an online map pinpointing residences of gun-permit holders. The newspaper obtained the information under New York’s open-records laws.

For many advocates for fewer gun-control laws, the map, which can be found online here: www.lohud.com/pistolpermits, touched a raw nerve. Gun-rights proponents reacted angrily, criticizing the newspaper’s decision to divulge “where the LEGAL GUNS are kept, a valuable piece of information for criminals,” as one Facebook commenter put it.

The dissent didn’t stop at social media.

As The New York Times reported, “Personal information about editors and writers at the paper has been posted online, including their home addresses and information about where their children attended school; some reporters have received notes saying they would be shot on the way to their cars; bloggers have encouraged people to steal credit card information of Journal News employees; and two packages containing white powder have been sent to the newsroom and a third to a reporter’s home (all were tested by the police and proved to be harmless).”

Armed guards are now stationed at the Journal News’ offices.

The newspaper’s editor, CynDee Royle, responded, “We knew publication of the database would be controversial but we felt sharing as much information as we could about gun ownership in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.”

That’s a judgment call, the sort editors frequently make.

My judgment falls on the other side on this issue, however. Having looked over the interactive map, I can find very little that’s newsworthy in publishing it. As has been established since its publication, some of the permit data is outdated, something that’s to be expected with such records.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to quality journalism, recently wrote, “Journalists broadcast and publish criminal records, drunk driving records, arrest records, professional licenses, inspection records and all sorts of private information. But when we publish private information, we should weigh the public’s right to know against the potential harm publishing could cause.”

My suggestion would have been to break down the community into neighborhoods. Then, instead of publishing individual names and addresses of pistol-permit holders, the newspaper could have presented in raw numbers how many permit holders were in each part of town.

My concern is that this episode will be used by those opposed to the disinfecting powers of sunshine laws that make the workings of government open. In the end, more valuable open-government laws could suffer as a result of the blowback from this New York case.

We’ve had our own open-records discussion in The Star newsroom in recent days. We believe our pursuit of this case is one of the best uses of sunshine laws. It’s important to keep the public informed of the workings of institutions under Alabama’s open-records and open-meetings laws.

Late last year, Regional Medical Center purchased Jacksonville Medical Center from Capella Healthcare. It’s a move that hospital officials said last week strengthens RMC’s position in northeast Alabama.

RMC has thus far refused to release the amount it paid to Capella for the Jacksonville hospital. RMC officials argue that (a.) it has signed an agreement to not divulge the price and (b.) case law doesn’t apply to RMC because it was a buyer and not a seller, the reverse of a landmark state Supreme Court case involving a north Alabama hospital.

According to legal counsel of the Alabama Press Association Dennis Bailey, neither argument holds water under the state’s open-records laws. RMC is a nonprofit hospital and its board is appointed by local governments, a fact that makes it subject to Alabama’s sunshine laws, Bailey said.

Ben Cunningham, The Star’s managing editor, put it well in responding to a reader who wanted to know why the newspaper was pursuing the purchase price. “People trust RMC with their lives and their health every day. The hospital’s ability to live up to that trust depends greatly on the resources it has available to provide our community with quality health care,” Cunningham wrote. “Meanwhile, RMC is also one of the county’s largest employers, meaning thousands of people depend on the hospital for their livelihood as well as their lives. RMC’s investment in the facility in Jacksonville, and the size of that investment, is thus a public matter of great importance to us all.”

The point here is that RMC is a valuable institution in this community. Its financial health is vitally important. It’s wonderful for RMC officials to assure the public that its most recent acquisition was a bargain. However, let’s recall the words of Ronald Reagan, who said, “Trust, but verify.”

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or bdavis@annistonstar.com. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.
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