Was the Charlotte Observer right to request email addresses from local city governments?
Posted on 25 Jan 2011 by Justin Ruckman
You might have received an email in your inbox last week from the City of Charlotte, telling you your email address was just handed over to the Charlotte Observer as part of a recent Freedom of Information Act request.
I didn’t, personally, because I wasn’t registered to receive any city email updates; but some 20,000 others were, and the reaction has been mixed. (I use an anonymous-email-to-RSS service that lets me subscribe to city email updates unobtrusively.)
Here’s an article on Poyner.org that explains the situation in a little more detail.
Observer staff were debating using the email addresses to, among other things, solicit locals to participate in their citizen news website, Insight, but they have since promised not to, in response to a fair amount of negative feedback.
Obviously the Observer was legal in its request, but was it right to do so? They argue the email addresses were earmarked for journalistic purposes only, while others claim the distinction between journalism and business is not so clear.
So what do you think?
Without getting into the right or wrong part, here is a copy of the request to Mecklenburg County:
This was an abuse of the law. It’s one thing to ask for lists like that as research for a news story.. which I’m sure was the original intent of the law allowing the request. In my opinion The Observer abused the law in asking for the email list for their own “marketing” practices! The person who we were told to contact.. and who did respond to me was the “Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development
” I hope that they do change this law so that it better fits the original intent and protects those of us who do like getting alerts from government agencies.. from having our emails given out to anyone who “requests”.
Yes, this was an available tool for the Observer to use in order to acquire email contacts. Yes, the Observer is struggling for readership from the greater Charlotte community. No, it wasn’t right of them to use the Freedom of Information Act in order to obtain these emails. The Observer should focus more on the quality and content of what they’re reporting rather than their email lists. If you generate great content and a great forum for citizens to voice their opinions, then there would not be a need to solicit their participation in an online forum through emails that were obtained through legal, though possibly unethical means.