Has The Charlotte Observer's 'e-mailgate' eroded your trust in the media?


Thanks to Keith Ramsey for the pic!
  • Thanks to Keith Ramsey for the pic!

As you probably know by now, someone from The Charlotte Observer's marketing department filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city and obtained roughly 20,000 e-mail addresses belonging to citizens and businesses who had signed up to receive alerts and notifications from our local government. In response, the city sent those e-mail addresses a note stating that the O obtained the addresses.

A local businessman and blogger, Scott Hepburn, pointed out some of his concerns on his blog, Media Emerging, last week, which include eroding the public's trust. He has a point.

Traditionally, the media is supposed to be society's watchdog. They're supposed to lift the proverbial veil between the public and government and big business. In this situation, however, it appears the roles have reversed. Our watchdog, it appears, was caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

And, the response from the paper's management? It came across as defensive. Oh no, no, no, no ... those e-mails were for journalistic purposes not marketing purposes, they cried in their pages and online. But, you might ask, what journalistic purpose is being served by the paper having your e-mail address, or your neighbors?

Now they're saying they will not use the e-mail addresses, but after the public's response was there any chance they'd be able to anyway? Again, defensive.

Now, here's something to keep in perspective: The media needs the FOIA. You need the media to have the FOIA so we can dig through our marble halls and make sure everything's on the up and up. But, does the media need your e-mail address? The answer to that is, "It depends." Chances are, though, they don't. (As one of my fellow journalists pointed out over the weekend, there still is such a thing as a telephone book.)

Here's something else to keep in perspective: The city is not trying to keep information from the daily, but they are lobbying the North Carolina Assembly to make such a transaction more difficult to obtain. Here's how: Instead of handing over an electronic file, organizations will have to sort through paper documents and enter the e-mail addresses into their databases themselves. In essence, the law will only force organizations to work harder for the same information, it won't prevent them from obtaining it.

The rumble on the streets is that the Observer was trying to slide its request under the radar, to get it in before the new law went into effect. Is that accurate? Meh. The information is public, and the paper does have a right to it — with or without the proposed law.

Better questions: Is the paper being honest with the public in its response? Would the folks at the O have used the e-mails for marketing purposes? What journalistic purpose is served by obtaining these e-mail addresses?

Even better: Does this act change the way you feel about the Observer or the media in general? Did you unsubscribe from city e-mail lists because of "e-mailgate"?

I look forward to your responses.

Rhiannon "Rhi" Bowman is an independent journalist who contributes snarky commentary on Creative Loafing's CLog blog four days a week in addition to writing for several other local media organizations. To learn more, click the links or follow Rhi on Twitter.

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