Most newspapers make endorsements in political races. It’s part of what editorial boards consider to be their responsibility to the community. If a newspaper has ideas about what its city, state and nation should be like, it has ideas about which policy-makers – the incumbent office holders as well as the challengers – are best for turning those ideas into reality. And it passes that advice along to readers.
But there’s a basic conflict at newspapers between editorial writers who strive to make opinions and reporters who are expected not to let opinions color their writing. For reporters, who ideally are supposed to be objective, editorial page endorsements can be a problem.
I was an editorial writer for 10 years at The Denver Post. On both sides of that stint, I was a reporter covering state and national politics. Endorsements by the editorial page didn’t seem to be that much of an issue for the people I was covering as a reporter. Most of them seemed to understand that editorial page endorsements weren’t intended to affect news coverage.
But it certainly isn’t obvious to all candidates. Nor is it apparent to the average reader, who may think an endorsement signals the kind of coverage (supportive) the endorsed candidate is going to get.
And some politicians are convinced that if your newspaper endorses their opponent in an election campaign, they’re not going to get fair treatment from you. On the other hand (as editorial writers are fond of saying), the candidate who gets the editorial endorsement may very well expect nothing but good words in your newspaper’s coverage.
It doesn’t work that way, as we all know. In fact, sometimes it works just the opposite of how candidates and the public might expect.
Sometimes, reporters will go out of their way to find potentially damaging things to write about the candidates their newspaper has endorsed. That’s an example of the capriciousness, perversity and downright cussedness of those who choose reporting as a way to make a living. Reporters don’t like to be told what to do or what to think, and an endorsement rankles them and tickles their sense of sarcasm.
Of course, reacting to an endorsement by making a special effort to show the failings of the endorsee is not really a good idea, either for one’s career or one’s ethics. It requires having a bias, and that is not a good thing.
But before they get too upset about endorsements, reporters should keep in mind that instructions from the editorial page aren’t really all that effective.
Last January, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a survey of public attitudes toward political coverage. Among its findings was that 83 percent of respondents (1,506 adults, in this Dec. 19-Jan. 4 sampling) said endorsements by their local newspapers make absolutely no difference in their voting-booth decisions.
The most effective endorsements, by the way, are from nonmedia sources. But even then, they don’t carry a great deal of weight. The Pew survey found that 19 percent of respondents said a Bill Clinton endorsement could affect their votes, and 16 percent said the Christian Coalition could. And those are the most influential endorsers the survey found.
Voter indifference toward newspaper endorsements is more pronounced at the top of the ticket. Presidential endorsements are of interest primarily to historians and communications theorists. They don’t seem to have much effect on voters.
But lower down on the ballot – for legislative or city council seats, for example – an endorsement can have more of an impact. Candidates for the less-prominent offices don’t have money to buy much television advertising or campaign materials, so the electorate doesn’t really know much about them.
That’s where endorsements really can influence a vote. If a reader generally agrees with the editorial page’s policies, he or she will trust the paper to make the right choice in a race where the reader doesn’t have much information. If the reader disagrees, the endorsements are a good guide for voting the opposite way.
I’ve seen people take lists of newspaper endorsements into the polling place with them. This should gladden the hearts of editorial writers and editors. Of course, it’s possible the clip-carrying voter is picking the candidates the newspaper rejected. After all, some voters also take delight in showing capriciousness, perversity and downright cussedness.
A few television stations around the country do editorials, but even those that do indulge in on-air statements of opinion are reluctant to do candidate endorsements.
Some observers see a trend away from endorsements as more media outlets become part of large conglomerates. Companies concerned primarily with the bottom line may be more reluctant to offend. And when one candidate is endorsed, the opponent is unhappy.
Newspapers also are losing their influence. That previously cited Pew study found that Americans, especially the younger ones, increasingly are turning away from traditional campaign news sources and toward the Internet – and even comedy shows – as sources for what’s going on in the world of politics.
Fifty percent of viewers under the age of 30 said they get at least some campaign news from comedians, and 64 percent of that younger group said “they are not even somewhat interested in news about the Democratic primary campaigns.”
Interestingly, that Pew survey also found that only 7 percent of Americans “keep close tabs on campaign news and events.” That number is the same as the percentage that said a newspaper endorsement would make them more likely to vote for a presidential candidate. An identical number, 7 percent, said an endorsement would make them less likely to vote the way the endorsing medium proposes.
The same split goes for the most influential endorser – Bill Clinton. While 19 percent said his endorsement would make them more likely to vote for his preferred presidential candidate; 19 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for that person.
Even so, that’s still only a 38 percent level of influence, including the “kiss of death” factor of those who go the opposite way. And the newspaper level of influence is just 14 percent, when those who agree and those who oppose are added together.
In this multimedia world, it does seem that the newspaper endorsement is losing ground. And, as it loses ground, it becomes less of a problem for reporters who worry that their newspaper’s editorial policy conflicts with their ability to report objectively.
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.