2002-06-22 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk
By Howard Schwach

Credibility is the key.

For those who deal with the public in any way. For business people, teachers, cops, doctors, nurses, firefighters, clerks involved with the bureaucracy and, I suppose, for newspaper editors as well.

When any of those people or groups of people (or, the institution they work for) loses credibility, they might as well fold up their tents and slink silently into the night.

How do individuals and institutions lose their credibility?

Let's take a look at some real-life situations that impact on life in Rockaway.

A local hospital makes the front page for allowing a local man's body to decompose before the body can get to the nearby funeral home. The same hospital, just moving away from a messy bankruptcy problem and a long line of reported staffing and supply problems, finds that many people are going elsewhere for elective procedures. While it probably does a fine job in many areas, its failure to safeguard the body of one deceased man may create the impression that other things are wrong as well.

A local newspaper publisher and editor decide to work closely on the campaign of a candidate for City Council. The paper continually runs positive stories about their candidate and negative stories about the other. Flattering pictures of one candidate run continually, not so flattering pictures of the other run not so regularly. The editor and publisher of the paper openly campaign for their candidate, who ultimately loses the election. What credibility can that paper have on any issue when it has been perceived as being one-sided in dealing with that particular election, with that particular issue?

A secretary in a local public school brushes off the legitimate questions of a parent who has come to the building seeking important information. When the parent asks to speak with an administrator, she is told that none is available, that they are all out of the building at meetings and workshops. The parent leaves, sure that the school is no longer the place for her child. While the school is doing a good job with kids, it no longer has credibility with that parent and others to whom she reports the incident.

A local police officer, assigned only to give out tickets on the west end's shopping areas, reportedly begins giving tickets to motorists who are legally parked. Those who get the ticket, parked legally on Beach 121 Street, for example, get a ticket that states that they were parked illegally on Beach 128 Street. Word gets around. A young girl walks from her car to the Muni-Meter on Beach 116 Street. She gets her receipt and returns to her car to see that officer writing her a parking ticket. That same police officer stalks a Wave official as he delivers papers to stores on a Friday morning. Twice in a short period of time, at two different locations, he issues parking tickets to the same car while the papers are being delivered. Word gets around, and soon, the one officer's excesses damage the credibility of every officer in that precinct.

The parking ban in the west end during the summer is particularly hard on those who rent apartments and do not have a driveway to park in. Some drive around for an hour before parking a mile or more from their apartment. When they come home, they find a car parked illegally in front of their building. The car has a police or fire placard in the window. It is never ticketed. One woman who got a ticket while she was bringing her shopping bags to her apartment (her flashers were on) complained to the police that there were two other cars parked on the block that did not get tickets. Both of those cars had NYPD precinct parking placards in the window (that would allow the cars to be parked nearby those particular precincts). She got so argumentative with the responding officers that she was arrested for being an emotionally disturbed person. Incidents such as those get around and destroy the credibility of all police officers.

A substitute teacher is arrested for losing control during a crayon-throwing incident and beating her charges. Another is arrested for molesting a child. Every teacher then becomes tarred with the same brush and teachers lose their credibility in the eyes of the parents of the children they teach.

I won't even go into Catholic Priests and what the recent scandals have done to the credibility of that group of men.

A newspaper editor, who must decide each week what goes into the paper and what does not, has a special problem with maintaining credibility.

We get a call from a woman who believes that a checkout girl at a local supermarket snubbed her because of her race. Is that a story for the paper?

A family comes to The Wave to report that their dead father was mistreated by the local hospital. Is that a story for the paper?

A woman calls that dozens of cats are being mistreated by an elderly woman who lives alone nearby the beach. Is that a story for the paper?

A man calls to say that he was mistreated in a restaurant that is one of the paper's largest advertisers. Is that a story for the paper? Several more people call all with similar stories. A man calls that he got food poisoning in the restaurant. When does it become a story for the paper?

A young woman jumps from a local building. Her family wants her identity shielded. Should the paper shield her identity? Many people know of the incident and look to the paper to find out what happened. Does the paper lose it credibility if it does not carry the story? Does it lose its credibility if it does carry the story?

A plane crashes in the community. It is a large, worldwide story. Many local people say that they saw the plane in flames and smoke prior to the crash. The NTSB says that there was no evidence of either flame or explosion. Do we continue to cover those who say otherwise? Do we lose our credibility if we do? Do we lose our credibility if we do not?

Newspapers, like public officials, have to be believed in order to do their jobs. To do that, there has to be a constant evaluation on the part of those officials and institutions as to the impact of what they are doing on the community. That is introspection that newspapers do every day. It is hoped that more of the public institutions that impact life on our peninsula will do the same.

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