Ethics Corner: Pictures of Pain
Posted: 3/7/2013  |  By: Allan Wolper
The Journal News has become a target of the gun lobby and of journalists in print, television, radio, and politics from the left and right for allegedly violating the privacy of people who have their gun permits on file in state offices in Westchester and Rockland County, N.Y. In other words, the paper got attacked simply doing what it is supposed to be doing: telling its readers what they need to know.

The upstate Gannett daily reprised a theme from the movie “Network,” in which a freaked-out television anchor asks his nationwide audience to rush to their window and shout that they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore.

The attacks on the paper were totally knee-jerk responses. Gun permits are public records. That means those records belong to the public. Posting them or shouting them out a window does not violate anyone’s privacy.

That is why it is difficult to understand why journalists who complained about the Journal News reporting on the gun registration records applauded the over-the-top coverage of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in rural Newtown, Conn., of 20 small children, six school officials, the mother of the shooter, and the shooter himself.

The media trucks that swamped the Sandy Hook area stole some of the most private moments from friends and relatives of the victims without worrying whether those pictures, posted online across the Internet, would haunt them forever.

The free press is supposed to call attention to this kind of local terrorism. But it is difficult to support that hard-edged version of journalism and defend the so-called privacy of public records that allow people such as Adam Lanza, 20, to shoot a classroom full of children, their teachers, his mother, Nancy, and finally take his own life.

The argument posed by the pro-gun privacy groups made no sense. The overwhelming majority of the gun permits are given out to peaceful people with no criminal records. But Adam Lanza had never been in trouble with the police, or with anyone else. The Journal News was doing its journalistic due diligence by notifying its readers that their neighbors may own a gun or two.

In fact, there were repeated stories in the local paper, The Newtown Bee, as well as the Journal News, about Newtown residents shooting off their guns near the homes of people with no arrests, according to published reports. That fact alone shows that the so-called sleepy village of Newtown is hardly the rural paradise the media makes it out to be. Newtown is also the headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association for America’s gun manufacturers.

After Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, the Journal News had obviously had enough. It was time to reprise its 2006 story on gun owners in the area, telling its Westchester readership once again that its high-priced neighborhoods are full of registered handguns. And that is what the paper did, on Dec. 23.

The outcry against the Journal News’ use of public records to out the gun people was much louder, it seemed, than the raw pictures that the media showed of the families and friends of the victims. The paper, critics felt, should have asked the gun owners for permission to publish their names.

No one in the media asked Alissa and Robbie Parker if they wanted a picture taken of their private pain after being told their daughter Emilie, 6, was one of the children gunned down at Sandy Hook, but millions of people probably saw that photo.

Photographers didn’t tap Chris and Lynn McDonnell on their shoulder to ask if they cared whether the picture of them holding each other after learning their daughter, Grace, 7, was another victim of that massacre was posted anywhere. After all, that unbelievably painful photo was news, not an invasion of privacy.

There were no complaints from the loudmouth media about the dramatic photo of the line of children, hands on the shoulders or backpack of the child in front of them, being escorted across the parking lot by Sandy Hook teachers. And surely no one asked one little girl in that line, her mouth open and obviously hysterical, whether taking her picture was a violation of her privacy.

That’s a photo she will have to live with for the rest of her life, a photo by Shannon Hicks of the Newtown Bee that is now a front runner for the Pulitzer Prize.

The news media who set up their cameras directly across the street from the Sandy Hook Firehouse where parents, relatives, and friends had gathered to wait for news of their children, hoping against hope that they had not been one of the victims, didn’t seem to worry about invading the privacy of those people.

The media even went out to the home of one of the victims to snap a picture of an empty house, guarded by a state police car. All of this was considered news that had to be told, that had to be shared.

The photojournalists seemed determined to capture every single painful moment of the massacre. No one was immune to their intrusive lenses. Not even an unidentified woman, in tears, her head down, her hands barely holding herself together, as she stood next to a car in the school parking lot. She should know that breaking down in public made her a public figure.

The Journal News gave some ammunition to the Second Amendment soldiers by publishing incorrect or outdated information about who had legally registered guns and who didn’t. The paper apologized, but that didn’t stop the criticism. Soon afterward, bloggers posted the names and addresses of the paper’s editors and reporters.

I did like the idea of reporters having their telephone numbers out there. Newspaper readers have been complaining for years about the difficulty of getting journalists to pay attention to their gripes. This lack of connection is one reason that papers are losing so many readers. Publishing their home numbers probably produced a notebook full of new sources and might even lead to some terrific stories.

I am not saying that those reporters deserved to get the kind of hate calls and emails that traumatized their homes. But it sure said something about the kind of gun-toting people there are in America that the Journal News had to hire private guards to protect its staffers from those deranged callers.

And the National Rifle Association and its allies managed to insert an amendment to a gun control bill signed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that allows gun owners to remove their weapon registration from the public records. A loss for the First Amendment.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.