By Bill Keller, from The New York Times
YOU are the editor of a local newspaper. A reporter on your staff comes to you having obtained (by legal means) one of the following:
- Police records of arrests for drunken driving;
- The personal details of all the employees of local clinics that perform abortions;
- The subscriber list of a survivalist magazine with pronounced racist overtones;
- The names and addresses of food stamp recipients in your community;
- The donors to a group that promotes L.G.B.T. rights;
- The names of husbands accused of infidelity in divorce suits, along with the identities of the alleged lovers;
- Addresses of homes where pit bulls are kept.
The reporter proposes to publish the names and home addresses and map them on a large graphic, all part of an article on “The [drunks/abortionists/racists/poor/gays/cheats/scary dogs] next door.”
Some of these lists might strike you as fair game. (Many community newspapers publish D.U.I. arrests, presumably to shame the accused into driving sober.) Others probably make you uncomfortable or indignant. You might find that the tricky part is articulating why: what is the boundary between a public service and an invasion of privacy?
My hypothetical editor’s choice is inspired, of course, by an unhypothetical event: the decision by The Journal News in White Plains to map the names and addresses of 33,614 handgun permit holders in two surrounding counties, for a project called “The gun owner next door.” I’ll return to that decision, but the striking thing was the volume and venom of the reader backlash: thousands of comments — and not only from gun owners — overwhelmingly outraged, some of them suggesting that Journal News journalists deserved to have their identities stolen, their homes burgled, their children taunted or, predictably, to be shot.
When it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites.
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