Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ooops - Infamous "gun map" mostly wrong

The Journal News made a big splash last month when they published an interactive map it claimed showed all the registered gun owners in Rockland county, New York.  The map generated a lot of negative response, debates over the ethics of "outing" gun owners, and may have encouraged several burglaries (see earlier post for more).
It turns out the map was mostly erroneous. as well.  Of the almost 17,000 addresses listed for gun owners, it turns out that only 3907 (22%) were "current" (given or updated in last 5 years).  As it turns out, Rockland county, like most counties in New York at the time, did not require permits to be renewed or updated periodically - thus when the paper asked for addresses, they got all 16,998 in the county records, going back to 1930.
The Journal News responded to the news of their erroneous map by blaming the county records office for giving them what they asked for.  But they did create a new map with all the old, and mostly erroneous addresses and stated that "some ... may not represent current gun owners."  (Interestingly, they don't provide that caveat for any of their other maps of addresses - implying that they all represent current gun owners).

This kind of reaction to an egregious error brings to mind several questions about the "vaunted layers of editors and fact-checkers" in the news business, and/or the motives of the paper.
  • Were they ignorant of the rules for permits, and unaware that permits never expired in that county?
  • Did they bother to ask anyone whether the permits list was current and accurate, or even look at the sample and measure definitions to find out?
  • Did anyone independently verify any of the listed addresses?
  • Did The Journal News know that most of the provided addresses were "historic," yet still included problematic listings to make the story more sensational?
or even more fundamentally,
  • Did anyone remember the basic semantics principle that "the map is not the place"?  That is, the paper got addresses, yet made claims of current gun ownership about the people who currently live at the address given on the permit.  Did no one realize that the permit holders might have moved, no longer owned gun(s), died, or that there might be other people at the address other than the gun owner?  Or that the permit might have an incorrect address (for reasons ranging from simple clerical error to intentional deception)?
If The Journal News wanted truth, they should have thought about and considered at least some of the above questions.  There's no indication that they did.  Rather, their reporting equates a listed address with a current gun owner, without exception.   Such a presumption, and their behavior in responding to valid questions about the ethics of "outing" a (disfavored) group, potential impacts, and now clearly erroneous results, suggests their purpose was to portray gun ownership as a plague on the community requiring immediate political action, with reckless disregard for the potential harm to those identified, and misidentified, as gun owners (as well as the truth).  As a result, rather than shaming gun owners, they've shamed themselves as journalists.

That's my opinion anyway.

Source -  Newspaper's Gun Map Woefully Inaccurate, Newser.com
Map: Where are the Gun Owners in Your Neighborhood,  lohud.com (The Journal News online site)

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