The Wave has to deal on a daily basis with politicians, civic leaders, New York City, New York State and Federal agencies, local residents and organization heads.
There is a story we want to get from them when we call.
There is often a story that they don’t want to tell us when we call.
We can understand that. There is no individual, no group, no agency that likes to look bad, that wants a negative story about itself told in a community newspaper.
We understand that, but we also believe that the public has a right to know what is going on in their community. Therein often lies the tug of war that we call "news gathering."
New gathering is a strange business. We often call an agency for information only to be turned away with a "no comment," or an unreturned call.
You would be surprised at how many governmental agencies at all levels would rather bury the news than tell it.
Far and away the worst of all the agencies is the New York City Department of Education. It should be called the Department of Obfuscation.
Call about the simplest issue and you will wait days (or, forever) for an answer. When Kathleen Cashin was named the new supervisor of this region’s schools, I called for an interview. I was told by the public information people at the DOE that she was not speaking to the press. A few days later, some of the daily papers featured interviews with Cashin.
The orders that come from the press office to all schools is that nobody is allowed to speak to the press about anything. Everything has to be cleared through the press office, who then turns around and refuses the information.
Sometimes, we get lucky and we get "the incident is under investigation and we can’t speak about it," or "the school principal acted appropriately."
On the flip side is Jon Gaska, the district manager for Community Board 14. Jon is a fount of information and is always willing to provide a succinct and informational quote on any subject.
Surprisingly enough, the next best source right now is the New York City Police Department. The NYPD has started an E-mail system that provides basic information throughout the day on crimes in precincts throughout the city. A call to the department’s deputy commissioner for public information (DCPI) most often fills in the blanks.
In addition, the community affairs officers from the two precincts covering Rockaway have been helpful as well, even though they do not agree with everything that is published about the department in The Wave.
Politicians are generally helpful because they always want their names in the paper.
Every once in a while one pol or another gets testy when I write something about them that they would rather not see in print, but they all come along sooner or later, because there are not many places in Rockaway they can go to get their name mentioned.
Congressman Anthony Weiner is one of the best. I can call his office and ask a question in the morning and be on his phone list within minutes. I always get a call-back from Weiner himself the same day I call. That is a journalist’s dream, and he never fails to respond to the question. I have never received a "no comment" from Weiner.
Our City Councilmen, James Sanders and Joe Addabbo are right up there as well. They are both forthcoming and truthful, even though I do not always agree with them about community issues, and I say so. They never fail to call back or provide a comment on a story or a question.
The same is true of Malcolm Smith, but not of Ada Smith, who has public relations problems of her own.
Board of Elections spokesperson Naomi Bernstein is the same. She calls back and provides answers.
Steve Greenberg, the president of Community School Board 27 is also quick with a recall, a quote or a answer to a question. It is a shame that Greenberg has been put out of business by the new school governance law.
The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have been constant targets in The Wave due to the crash of flight 587 in Belle Harbor and the question of revised flight paths away from that community. Both Arlene Salac of the FAA and Ted Lopatkiewicz of the NTSB have been unfailingly helpful, even when I put them on the spot about the crash and about the witness statements.
Of course, I say all these nice things about people with the understanding that there are specific cases that make them mum.
One of the most recent worrisome events was the federal Health Insurance Privacy Portability and Privacy Act (HIPAA), which restricts the information health providers can give to newspapers. We once got birth announcements from the hospitals. That is no longer possible. Until recently, we could call the local hospitals for basic information about people who were involved in accidents or in shootings. The hospitals are not allowed even to give out one-word descriptions such as "critical," "stable," or "deceased" without the patient’s permission. The Emergency Medical Service (EMS) now refuses to speak about people who have been transported to hospitals. It is tough to get the news in order to pass it on to our readers.
I can understand that many do not want to provide information to the media. Most people, whether in the public or the private sector, like to put a positive "spin" on things that are said or thought about them. That is just human behavior.
The difference, however, is that things that affect public officials or agencies also touch the public at large and that public has a right to know what is going on.
Some agencies do not believe that.
The DOE, for example, tries to cover up everything negative that occurs in schools.
When a teacher was injured at MS 180, for example, and two students were arrested, the DOE’s response to my call was not to call back for a week. Then, a spokesperson did call back to tell me that I had it all wrong, that some kids were fighting and a teacher fell down. There was no assault, no injury. So sorry. Good bye!
So, next time you read a story and it seems incomplete or you wonder why we didn’t speak to some other person about the story, be aware that news gathering is not always an easy task, but it is an enjoyable one. Putting together a story and then having people react to it, either negatively or positively, is the greatest reason for being involved in the field of journalism in the first place.
Just ask anybody who has written for The Wave and has then stood in the a local store watching the faces of the hundreds of people who peruse The latest copy of The Wave and then purchase it.
As somebody once said, "the worst thing that can happen to a journalist is to be ignored."