News is midwifed by people whose egos are large enough to support the notion that what they think is important is what all of us should think is important.
It worked pretty well when the news was delivered exclusively by editors and broadcasters who had spent decades earning the respect of the communities in which they reported.
These days, the bonds between journalists and communities are frayed. Established media brands change beat reporters and sometimes ownership as frequently as Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.
Pressured to squeeze bigger profit margins out of shrinking staffs, some publishers confuse old school muckraking with just plain muck.
Take “The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood.”
This lengthy but not terribly informative story lead the December 23 edition of Gannett Co.’s White Plains (N.Y.) Journal News. The centerpiece of the package was an interactive map showing the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in the paper’s circulation area.
The Journal News didn’t bother with the hard and time-consuming work of drawing meaningful conclusions from its database. Missing is information such as whether the named permit holders had ever actually purchased a gun.
By mid-week, tens of thousands of folks all over the world had taken to social media to denounce this half-baked effort to provide a local angle on the December 14 massacre that left 20 first-graders dead in Newtown, Ct.
One cranky reader with a blog of his own protested the “… bright idea of exposing law-abiding gun owners and feeding that information to criminals and busybodies.” Before long, the blogosphere went to work piecing together an interactive map that asks and answers the question, ““Where are the Journal News employees in your neighborhood?”
Folks not known for mindless media bashing tried and failed to find something to say in the Journal News’ defense. The Poynter Institute’s esteemed Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark spoke for people who reflexively defend everybody’s right to say anything. “My predisposition is to support the journalism,” Clark told the Associated Press. “I want to be persuaded that this story or this practice has some higher social purpose, but I can’t find it.”
A 73 year old woman whose name showed up in the Journal News data dump complained to Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, “They’ve put me on the same level as a sex offender…. What were they thinking? Were they going to shame me out of a gun?”
That’s a good question, and Wemple tried to get an answer. But Gannett’s not talking beyond a brief press release in which Journal News publisher Janet Hasson damned her newsroom with faint praise. “….[W]e felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” said Hasson in the release’s most stirring turn of phrase. Let’s hope this bland bunker mentality does not metastasize to Florida, where Gannett owns four newspapers and three TV stations.
Meanwhile, at Slate.com, a more thoughtful database is taking shape. In partnership with @GunDeaths, the online magazine is working to determine, day-by-day, how many people have been shot to death since Newtown.
It’s not a statistic that government keeps, and Slate.com is performing a real service in volunteering its reporting resources to the worthy—and newsworthy—cause of generating a “crowdsourced tally of the toll firearms have taken since Dec. 14.” Florida’s number, by the way, stands at 22.
The sharp contrast between the Journal News’ drive-by database and the more informative mapping at Slate reminds us that here in the post-printing press era, good journalism is happening in places we’ve never heard of, and bad journalism no longer has anywhere to hide.
Florence Snyder is a member of the Board of Directors of Broward Bulldog. She is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org