Elected officials have to join Internet age

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 24, 2010

Regardless of whether citizens love him or hate him, think he is doing a great job or a terrible one, Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens certainly grasps being an elected official in the 21st Century.

Stephens understands how the Internet has changed politics and created a world of instant discussion and commentary. And, perhaps better than any other local politician, Stephens utilizes the online comment sections like The Tribune’s to his advantage.

“It is a different environment than it was just a few years ago. The ‘blogs allow direct interaction with people and 24/7 feedback,” said Stephens, who posts under the user name CommissionerStephens and always includes his first name as well. “… I appreciate it because it gives me the opportunity to further explain issues that may be very complicated.”

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While some people may be online just looking to argue, many people are truly looking to debate and discuss ideas, he said.

“I always try to leave my e-mail address on every story that I comment on. I have had a few (contact me),” Stephens said. “They are usually the ones who are looking for an answer or are honestly trying to understand an issue. I think I have been able to win a few friends, I guess you could say.”

Elected leaders like Stephens understand how the online product can complement the printed version.

The reality is that the newspaper is trying to report on complicated, detailed issues regarding county finances and the like. Printed space is limited so reporters have to boil down a three-hour meeting discussion into a 12-inch story.

That certainly leaves room for interpretation of what should or should not have been included as the most important points.

“I try not to comment on every story but if I feel a story didn’t print everything I was trying to get across, and I understand the limitations, I can expound on it,” Stephens said. “I try not to get into a debate but maybe just dispel some things that I feel are misinformation.”

While this approach to online commentary may not sound like a revelation to many people, it is surprising how few elected officials use this or understand why this newspaper feature is important to provide the community a voice.

In fact, three or four elected officials and public employees have essentially decided to boycott communicating with their constituents out of fear of negative public opinion.

That is the message being sent by a small group who have decided they will not speak to The Tribune — whose role is to essentially represent the public in terms of seeking information — about any community event or news story.

Their complaint with the newspaper is that they don’t like anonymous online reader comments.

But how is this any different than the real world where people often talk about leaders when they aren’t around?

What these critics fail to realize is that the comments are simply a reflection of their communities.

Are some negative or mean? Sure, but these are the same things being said around water coolers, at barber shops, in restaurants and throughout the community.

Instead of working to change viewpoints or educate some of the commenters, these few leaders have decided to shutout hundreds or even thousands of those same people who voted them into office in the first place.

This is the Digital Age. The technology and push for instant feedback isn’t going away. And rather than fight it, we hope more elected officials will take Stephens’ lead and log on and stay connected with the voters.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.