Is it Word of Mouth or Word of Empire?

My turn

Posted: Friday, February 09, 2001

A good way to test the fairness of a system is to turn it on its operators. Many have complained about anonymous personal attacks in Word of Mouth. The question is, what happens when the Empire becomes the target? Specifically, does it protect the anonymity of the caller?

In at least one case, the Empire speculated about the identity of a critical WOM caller (see the Oct. 11, 2000, article by Managing Editor Steve Reed that implies Dave Palmer called). Isn't this a breach of trust? If WOM is anonymous, it should be anonymous no matter whose ox is being gored. The Empire's hypocrisy shows it does not willingly subject itself to the condition it inflicts on others.

Over time, a community's communication channels can shape its character. Opportunity to make risk-free insults leads to proliferation of them. Among other things, this discourages those who would run for public office, thus becoming targets. WOM distorts, rather than reports, public opinion by giving a megaphone to those with so little respect for their own message they don't want their name associated with it.

Another problem with WOM is the controlling influence editors have on what is presented as the voice of the community. Letters to the editor come with a constraint on excessive editing. This is because the authors, whose names appear in print, object to significant changes of meaning. Unattributed phone calls have no such constraint. Messages can be changed at will or, for that matter, made up of whole cloth. Callers who complain about editing can be told, "Oh, we didn't use your message, that one came from someone else." (I am not implying the Empire does this, just that there is no check on its ability to.)

In addition to greater editing control, the Empire has greater control over which messages get printed than it does with letters to the editor. Because there are few letters to the editor, almost all get printed. In contrast, about a third of WOM messages get printed.

The ability to reject two-thirds gives the Empire a decisive influence. Although I'm sure the Empire makes an attempt at proportional representation, I wonder if they are successful at it when issues hit close to home. For example, on Feb. 5 when five pro-Word of Mouth messages were printed, were there actually three times that many received? The trouble is, the community will never know.

More than any other public feedback channel, WOM enables the media to color the voice of the community. This should be a subject of concern to Juneauites. The solution is simple have callers give their names. In addition to prompting more responsible messages, this personal connection would make the Empire more accountable. WOM could still be the "Drive-Through Window of Opinion" it would just require 61 (instead of 60) seconds or less to submit a message.

Anonymous WOM trades open, honest debate for media manipulation, hidden agendas, backbiting and gossip-level entertainment. It does not fit in this community.

Kurt Smith is an engineer employed by the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

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