It's Not Doxing When The Government Does It

But also, maybe it is.

NPR’s Public Editor, Kelly McBride, publicly responded to comments on Cheryl Thompson’s series of stories on sex offense registries (which I wrote at length about here and here). Apparently other people found Thompson’s reporting to be problematic. Here, for example, is the listener comment that McBride responded to:

When did it become NPR's job to assist the police in law enforcement? I was shocked that you "named names" in your story on sex offenders not registering as they are supposed to. It's one thing to point out the problem of lapsed registration, but the two gentlemen you interviewed have served their time. Why should they be singled out when there are hundreds more like them? This approach to reporting seems highly unethical. 

McBride also observes that Dr. Kelly Socia — one of the experts who was interviewed by Thompson, wrote to express his disagreement with the piece: that Thompson’s reporting leaves readers with an impression that is contrary to his work, and the interview that he gave.

McBride, in the response, notes that “Minimizing harm is a well-established principle of journalism ethics,” which seems (to me at least) to not have been given a great deal of consideration here. For example, here his how Thompson and her editor, Bob Little, respond to the query of using the full identities of people with past sex offense convictions in their reporting:

There were two men named in the story that ran on the air, five men named in the text version.  Little said he and Thompson discussed whether to use the full names of sex offenders. “All of the men we mentioned are already listed in public registries, which include addresses and photographs,” he said. “And we found them using public records as well.” 

This response, notably, does not address the decision to presumably seek to have an arrest warrant to be issued for a vet living in a VA long term care facility in the midst of a pandemic — nor does it address the decision to disclose the HIV status of another subject to a national audience when it has no relevance (nor to discuss with that person’s neighbors his ~30 year old criminal history). Harm minimization, indeed.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty standard response for this context. Indeed, it is one consistently offered by the government when it is tasked with defending the constitutionality of these systems and one that has been offered by the Supreme Court as well: that all of this information is public record. That the government’s very purpose of these registries is to broadcast the criminal histories of a select group of people to the world — and thus, it is deployed as a talisman against any further inquiry into the propriety of using that information.

To be sure, a great deal of information is on the public record. New Jersey federal Judge Salas’ home address was public record, for example, when a disgruntled lawyer who appeared before her gunned down her family at their home. In May of this year, James Fairbanks was arrested in the slaying of Mattieo Condoluci — a killing which is entirely attributable to the fact that Condoluci was on Nebraska’s sex offense registry. Vigilante murders of this sort aren’t common, but they aren’t rare, either.

Does the mere fact of public availability of information end the inquiry into the ethics of using it? I’m not sure that it does.

Doxing is the practice of publishing personal details, typically including home addresses of individuals, and typically with malicious intention. To NPR’s credit, they at least did not include the actual home address of any of their subjects (or their families) in their reporting — unlike the USA TODAY article that occasioned this newsletter’s origins — but I’m not sure they fare much better in the final analysis.

I don’t think that the government’s ever-increasing fondness for public conviction registries is altogether different from doxing, nor do I think that the government’s imprimatur excuses journalistic or ethical inquiries into whether the use of that information is appropriate. If journalists simply took the government’s word for everything, what would journalism be good for exactly?

The government justifies registries on the grounds that the people on them are dangerous, but is simultaneously wholly indifferent to whether that is actually true (and, as the government’s own data indicate, it isn’t true). A malicious intention lurks at the heart of these systems, even as legislatures do their best to cast it in other terms (so as to shore up their constitutionality).

And, to be sure, criminal convictions are matters of public record but there are important distinctions here. With most criminal convictions, the government does not compel people who have served their time to be publicly listed for perhaps the rest of their lives, and direct members of the public to be afraid of them, to hate them, to deny them jobs, to deny them housing, and to cut them off from participation in civic and community life on the basis of a crime that they committed, however long ago. Nor would journalists, in reporting on someone with a criminal conviction, publish the home address of that person and their family (presumably in keeping with the “harm minimization” principle that McBride mentions).

To be clear, I am glad that there is at least some response to Thompson’s reporting — and I am grateful that McBride took the time to at least write a response, even if it left much to be desired.

I just mostly wish there wasn’t a need for the response in the first place.

Edited to add this critical observation: