Tampabay.com's shiny new Mug Shots gallery has sparked a debate: Is it the proper role of journalism to publicize everything?
In an email to several journalism-related lists, Nora Paul of the University of Minnesota declared: "I think it borders on journalistic malpractice! ... Journalism should be about putting important events in a community into context. This doesn't."
Of course many news organizations have built mug shot galleries in the past -- and also built databases disclosing the salaries of public employees, the home addresses of holders of concealed-carry gun permits, and any number of mashups of information that's long been theoretically available but practically concealed.
We've gone from paper records at the county courthouse to digital data that opens a path to disclosure of some things that not all of us would appreciate. How much did you pay for your house? If you live in my county, I can get the answer in about two minutes through a government GIS system on the Web. Should I be able to get that information about your car? How about your salary, and your income taxes?
In 2007, the Roanoke Times built a database of gun permit holders that set off such a furor that it led to legislative action to restrict availability of the information.
There may be public benefit in knowing John Delaney collected $325,000 as president of the University of North Florida. But do we all need to know that Mary Smith was paid $10,112 as a food-service assistant at the local school district?
Marshall McLuhan predicted that evolving communications technologies would transform the world into a global village. I've lived in villages. They are places where people tend to know an awful lot about one another. It can be stifling. A mistake can follow you around for a long time. Some people have to leave town. Public knowledge of everything is not always a good thing.
There is a word that describes a place where all can be seen: panopticon. In 1785, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham used it as a name for his design for a prison. We need to be careful about what we're building.