Posted by: structureofnews | March 9, 2015

When Worlds Collide

WorldsOK, so the collision I’m talking about isn’t quite as apocalyptic as planets running into each other (although if you were in Boston just a few weeks ago, you would have had a glimpse of what the end of the world does look like). But close.

What happens when perfectly reasonable offline rules are applied to an online world?

The New York Times had a good piece the other day looking precisely at one such collision: The increasing leakage of documents in certain types of suits, often involving gender discrimination, into the digital world, and how allegations contained in them could go viral well before any court hearings, and long before any rebuttals could be filed.  And all protected from libel actions because they’re court filings.

Not that this wasn’t at least theoretically possible before, but as the NYT piece notes:

Lawsuit papers are generally public, but before the advent of electronic filing, most of them remained stuffed inside folders and filing cabinets at courthouses.

It’s that the ease of digital access – in theory, and often in practice, a good thing – sometimes leads to very unexpected results when applied to rules designed for an offline world.  Should government salaries be made available in searchable databases, for example?

There’s an argument to be made that the public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, down to the last employee; there’s another argument to be made that low- and mid-level employees have the right to some privacy.  In the past, at least, journalists played some kind of a role as gatekeepers to that information, in effect deciding when more disclosure might be in the public interest.

But that role as gatekeeper is crumbling, if it hasn’t already collapsed – and in any case, who would decide, in an online age, who’s a journalist who should have access and who’s a member of the public who shouldn’t?

And what does the public think about it?

I recall Reuters colleague and data maven Mo Tamman warning more than a few years ago about a backlash as more and more personal data is thrown up online by news sites, and that view certainly seemed prescient when New York state’s Journal News published names and addresses of handgun permit holders. As a piece on PBS’ Mediashift site noted at the time:

But when a suburban New York newspaper mapped data identifying pistol permit holders in December, its staff demonstrated the problems unleashed when we free information without critical ethical reasoning.

The net result may well be less transparency in the future.

But perhaps the greatest problem presented by the Journal News approach and ethical reasoning is the damage to support for public information itself. The publication gave rise to new and renewed calls to shield gun ownership records from public inspection. New York immediately moved to bar disclosure of gun owners’ names in its registration database. Similar or broader proposals are on the table in Arkansas, California, Montana and Virginia.

To be fair to journalists, this isn’t really an issue that’s entirely in our hands any more.  Anyone can take public data – or stolen private data – and put it online. The Sony hack, for example, thrust a trove of internal emails in the public – although news organizations did much to spread the information around.  Still, the NYT story wasn’t about news organizations passing salacious details of lawsuits around, but more about the price of far greater transparency and transmission of all kinds of information.

“It’s not clear that lighting a match and dropping it in the public sphere is going to be a reliable way to bring closure,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard professor of Internet law who compared the practice to the old campus tactic of scrawling the names of alleged rapists on women’s bathroom walls.

Not that there are easy answers here.  It’s wonderful that we have so much more information – after all, that’s the fuel of good journalism and at least in theory, better-informed public debate.  But there’s also the view that what’s really needed is information that’s in the public interest, verified and placed in the right context – the traditional mission task of journalism, in many ways.  Except that the lines between journalists, journalism and the public have become so blurred that this is less an issue of journalism than it is of society.

There are certainly countries where all tax information is public, so clearly there are societies where more sharing isn’t an issue. But at the same time, there are places where the trend is towards more privacy.  In the end, presumably, societies will evolve to a level of openness they’re comfortable with.

Meanwhile, journalists – and journalism – should be making the case for more disclosure in the interest of better public discourse, and thinking of ways that can be encouraged (and ideally not contributing to more of a backlash). However that turns out, we’re clearly in a brave new world, to pick a different science fiction title.  The NYT piece concludes:

Leigh Goodmark, another Maryland law professor, said the online boom of gender-related court documents was a harbinger of a future in which virtually no legal document — an eviction notice, a divorce pleading with embarrassing details — would be safe from public consumption.

“Things people never bargained on getting out will get out,” she said.


  1. This is a really important topic, and one I’ve been thinking about for some time (, especially since the Journal News incident. As a culture, we have a long way to go before we can say we’ve successfully navigated the difference between data presence — public data’s existence in the first place — and data availability, which has changed rapidly in the Internet era. The two never used to be closely linked but now, as you note above, public data means — for all intents and purposes — that it’s easily accessible as well.

    • Jay, thanks for the comment. The point, essentially, is that a large-enough change in degree of accessibility becomes a change in kind, and that has all sorts of implications, both for societal norms and journalistic uses. All of which will be complicated by the fact that societies will evolve different standards, but that a lot of data will be cross-border and global in nature.

      Ultimately, will we just get used to it, as some societies seem to have come to terms with public tax data? Or will we create enough friction in the system – complicated FOIA requests, for example – so that only people with the energy and drive to dig up information will do so?

      It’s hard to see a technical solution – or even all that much of a legal one. There’s probably going to have to be some consensus developed in each country – and journalists need to both flag the issues in smart coverage and make the case for informed, intelligent use of public data.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: