Individual Rights vs. the News Media: Is This Really A Debate?

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A local New York newspaper, The Journal News, finds itself at the center of a media firestorm. On December 23, 2012, the newspaper published an article that, according to The New York Times, identified “names and addresses of handgun permit holders — a total of 33,614 — in two suburban counties, Westchester and Rockland, and put maps of their locations online.” This drew the ire of gun owners, who argued that this made them targets. Local gun owners were not the only ones who were angry. The newspaper received emails and phone calls taking the paper to task and, occasionally, threatening those involved with the article. The paper and its staff have since taken precautions – changing their phone numbers, staying in hotels, and hiring armed guards – just in case someone decides to act on their threat  (Read the NYT article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/07/nyregion/after-pinpointing-gun-owners-journal-news-is-a-target.html?nl=nyregion&emc=edit_ur_20130107 and the original piece here http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012312230056&gcheck=1).

In journalistic circles, media professionals debate the value of publishing data. A common argument outlines the importance of balancing individual rights and public interest. Poynter.org summarizes the journalistic arguments well, noting, among other things, that journalists publish pubic data all the time. Jeff Sonderman, the author of the piece, shares part of an email from Max, Brantley, a columnist and former editor of the Arkansas Times. Brantley notes:

Since when does a newspaper have to justify publication of a public record? It’s done all the time. New vehicle registrations. Changes of address at the postoffice. Marriages. Divorces. Births. Building permits. Real estate sale prices. Salary lists. Campaign contributors. Homes hit by burglars including accounts of property stolen. Bankruptcies. Signers of ballot initiative petitions. On and on.

 Where the hell does Poynter, of all people, get off deciding that only in the case of gun permits should a newspaper have to demonstrate “purpose and meaning” for sharing interesting public record data?

The article, which you can read here – http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/top-stories/199834/programmers-explain-how-to-turn-data-into-journalism-why-that-matters-after-gun-permit-data-publishing/, goes on to outline the importance of evaluating data in terms of 1) its quality and 2) its contribution to the story.

Opinions regarding piece by The Journal News also depend on the whether or not you want stronger gun control, a better mental health care system, or curtail violence in American culture. What caught my attention about these arguments was the fact that individual rights play so prominently into these “discussions.” The use of quotations is intentional here because the focus on individual rights – whether it is the right to own a gun, the right to protect your family from gun owners, the right to mental health care, the right to know compile and publish information on who has been diagnosed as having mental health problems, the right to walk down the street without being bombarded by sexually explicit or violent ads, or the right to watch and play violent media – are conversation stoppers. When someone refers to his/her rights, they are often planting her/his feet firmly and non-verbally saying “There is absolutely no way that I will listen to or be swayed by your opinion. I am talking about MY rights.”

Is the focus on individual rights bad? Of course not. However, it is increasingly used as a barrier and, consequently, creates obstacles in our collective conversations. So, while I appreciate the news media being reflexive, I wish our politicians and citizenry would do the same. Conflict is part of consensus-building. But, we will never get to the consensus if we cannot move beyond our entrenched positions that we cloak in rights.

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About Double take Sociology

I am a professor of sociology at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. My new book is "Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America" (2015, Cambridge University Press). Be sure to visit my website at www.DeanaRohlinger.com!
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