LLOYD GRAY: Public records, political hay

By Lloyd Gray

Every now and then I’m reminded that we in the newspaper business don’t do a very good job of explaining to readers how we do our work.
Last week provided one of those reminders.
As the Mississippi House of Representatives was considering a bill that would close conceal-carry gun permits to public inspection, it came to legislators’ attention that a Daily Journal reporter had made a public records request to the Department of Public Safety for the permit records in Lee County.
Some legislators, talk radio hosts and social media users jumped to conclusions about what we intended to do with those records. They assumed we would follow the course of the newspaper in New York state that published the names and addresses of gun permit holders.
That assumption was false, but it was useful for the purposes of the folks who wanted the records closed. Could that explain why no legislator or talk radio host who was spreading the news of our request and telling people what we would do with the information ever talked to us about our intentions?
We never planned to publish the names or addresses of the permit holders, and we never will.
So why did we ask for the public records of permit holders in Lee County? That’s where more explanation of how we do our jobs is in order.
Reporters at this and most newspapers access or ask for public records on a routine basis. It’s a basic part of gathering the news.
Sometimes those records are used in their entirety, sometimes for particular items within them, sometimes for guiding us in spotting trends or developing story ideas.
On some occasions, public records – the 2010 Census comes to mind – are a treasure trove of information for uncovering significant trends. We wrote many stories based on what the census data told us about Tupelo, Lee County and the surrounding area.
At other times, they can help us better understand – and therefore convey to our readers – unfolding developments. That’s what the gun permit request was about.
Obviously, the gun issue is high on the public and political radar these days. We’ve been trying to bring the national issue and its ramifications down to the local level.
We’ve done stories about the spike in gun sales since President Obama’s re-election in anticipation of the gun control initiatives that came forward. We’ve reported on what Mississippi’s gun laws require and what they don’t. We’ve solicited and published readers’ opinions about the issue.
We’ve also heard anecdotally that there’s been a big surge recently in conceal carry permits. We were interested in seeing the specific data to inform our reporting. How many? Was the timing related to national developments? Was it mostly in rural areas or equally in the city and towns? What information is collected on you if you seek a permit?
This isn’t the first time we’ve made such a request. Back in 2006, we asked for and received a list of concealed-carry permit holders for the entire state. We analyzed the data, looked at regional trends and otherwise mined information that would help us better understand the subject. And, of course, we never published any names or addresses.
In short, we ask for and examine public records. It’s the way we operate. We may use some or all of what the records tell us, or we may find nothing pertinent or useful to our readers and move on.
Whatever we do with the records, we aim to do it responsibly. We figure our readers, not political haymakers, are the best judges over time of whether we succeed.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.