On Sunday and again in today’s paper, the Chronicle published on its opinions page the paper’s political endorsements for this election year.
The first set of endorsements covered statewide races, such as the U.S. House of Representatives, Attorney General and Public Service commission. The second set dealt with House and Senate races for the state Legislature. The last endorsement, the one for U.S. Senate, is slated for this weekend.
Newspaper endorsements are a contentious matter. For one, the method by which they are decided is unclear to a lot of readers, and that lack of transparency, for some, makes all of the newspaper’s political coverage suspicious. It certainly did to this reader:
This is just our local example of people reacting to the endorsement process. Other newspapers around the country are certainly getting feedback like this on their own endorsements. After all, a lot of people wonder, doesn’t the existence of omnipresent media and social networking make newspaper endorsements unnecessary?
First of all, we have to remember that there is no rule or law saying that newspapers have to be unbiased. Newspapers are private businesses, not government-sanctioned public relations houses. Many newspapers in many places around the globe are blatantly skewed toward one political viewpoint or another — the United Kingdom is a good example of this sort of media environment.
The advent of the “professional” journalist, who struggles to be fair and balanced, is a relatively new thing in America. Before about 60 years ago, the press was stained yellow with influence from politicians and powerful corporate interests; politically minded newspaper owners used their papers as bully pulpits to espouse whatever issues they felt passionately about.
This use of media was common from colonial times, when the sole aim of newspapers seemed to be making light of and criticizing the government and those in power — indeed, that seems to be the reason newspapers began operating in the first place.
The objective press arose, some say, as newspapers became larger companies that had to pass successfully from generation to generation. Some measure of institutionalism was needed to ease those transitions and sustain the business; hence, an atmosphere of professionalism arose.
I like to think too that reader demands for a breath of fresh air amid all the muckracking and mudslinging drove people to seek a less partisan middle ground. A less belligerent paper probably sold well in that media climate.
Whatever the reason for the professionalization of journalism, reporters now are expected to remain unbiased and abide by voluntarily accepted codes of ethics. The last vestiges of pure opinion in the newspaper are the editorial pages, which serve as the “sanctioned mouthpiece of the newspaper,” writes Kimberly Meltzer in the journal Journalism, “to collectively craft and publish its views on a wide range of topics.”
Normally, a strict wall exists between the newsroom — where the reporters live — and the editorial board, Meltzer writes. On one side, journalism ethics rule; on the other, things work differently:
In writing endorsements, editorial board members are in effect expected to eschew the considerations of the news divisions, and produce endorsements that emerge from subjective and personal opinions that are avoided in other parts of news discourse.
No more endorsements
A lot of debate this year has focused on whether newspapers should be endorsing candidates at all.
Endorsements are a tradition that go back to at least Civil War times. In October 1860, for example, the New York Times endorsed one “Mr. Lincoln, of Illinois” for the office of president. (I couldn’t find a detailed history of how far back political endorsements go in the news business, so if anyone has a link or ISBN number, leave it in the comments.)
However, a number of papers have stopped endorsements. The famous, historical example is the Wall Street Journal, which in 1928 endorsed Herbert Hoover for president, calling him “the soundest proposition for those with a financial stake in the country.” The paper has rarely if ever endorsed a candidate since.
More recently, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Chicago Sun-Times have given up the practice. The Sun-Times’ publisher, John Barron, commented on the decision in January:
We have come to doubt the value of candidate endorsements by this newspaper or any newspaper, especially in a day when a multitude of information sources allow even a casual voter to be better informed than ever before.
Research on the matter suggests that editorial endorsements don’t change many votes, especially in higher-profile races. Another school of thought, however — often expressed by readers — is that candidate endorsements, more so than all other views on an editorial page, promote the perception of a hidden bias by a newspaper, from Page One to the sports pages.
Also this year, Halifax Media Group, which owns 34 papers in six states, announced its opinion pages would no longer endorse candidates. The papers will, however, continue to take stances on constitutional amendments, local initiatives and public policy issues.
In Montana, the Gannett-owned Great Falls Tribune announced Sept. 29 that it was ending candidate endorsements. Publisher and editor Jim Strauss explained the decision in a column saying:
[A] growing number of readers who no longer differentiate between news coverage and opinion pages. Though Tribune news reporters have never had a voice in our endorsements, many readers don’t believe that. Once an endorsement is made, they label every story that comes after it as biased because one candidate or another has been endorsed by the Tribune.
As an example, Strauss told the story of one reader unwilling to believe in the separation between the newsroom and editorial board:
Strauss recounted this example of one reader unwilling to believe the opinion page is separated from the newsroom:
Earlier this month, our Communities Editor Scott Thompson received a call from a reader upset that she didn’t see an article on Ann Romney’s Republican National Convention speech in the next morning’s Tribune. Scott quickly directed her to the front page of that day’s paper, where a story recapping the speech ran down the side.
The caller’s reaction: “You hid it!”
When readers accuse you of hiding news on the front page, you know the hurdle to prove objectivity is a high one.
The Helena Independent Record, owned by Lee Enterprises, also made an announcement on endorsements in September. In a column describing management shakeups at the paper, the publisher said it is reexamining the way its newsroom and opinion pages work.
This reexamination has resulted in a new election content policy. Rather than endorsements, the paper will publish candidate-submitted columns that will be published as-written, a direct avenue for the campaigns to say whatever they want, so long as they don’t mention their opponents directly.
Kristina Ackermann of Editor & Publisher writes that when the magazine asked in its August issue whether papers should endorse candidates, the responses from people in the news industry were fairly evenly divided.
Publishers who said they would not endorse candidates said their decisions were based on the notion that their papers were there to inform people, not tell them how to vote, Ackermann said.
The Chicago Tribune, competitor to the Sun-Times, published an editorial in January reaffirming the paper’s endorsement process, saying that newspapers “have a unique role as a public citizen.”
As the biggest newspaper in Chicago and the Midwest, we want to inform our readers and encourage them to push an agenda for a more vital community. The most direct way they do that is in choosing who will lead their government….
It would be an abdication of to say what we think should be done on an array of issues every day (in editorials) — and then take a vow of silence about who is most likely to advance those goals.
The Stuart, Fla., TC Palm — a competitor to a Halifax-owned paper — called endorsements a public service that the paper takes on because not all citizens have the time or inclination to do the same amount of homework:
While the news department, whose stories are found on other pages of this newspaper, covers developments in races and investigates candidates, our editorial board is able to review all appropriate documentation in a race, assess how well a candidate would do if elected and express our collective viewpoint.
Some voters can do the same thing, but many do not have the time to attend public forums, review candidates’ backgrounds, past campaign promises and actions, and interview candidates. Our editorial writers make an extra effort to learn everything about a candidate they can to make an informed decision. We invite candidates in particular races to meet with us jointly in an open debate/interview where we often sort out clear differences between candidates.
Montana political blogger Don Pogreba criticized the Tribune and Independent Record for their decisions, calling their decisions a “fundamental failure.” In particular, Pogreba picked on the Tribune’s rationale — that there are so many other ways for people to become informed other than endorsements — fatuous.
To suggest that editorial endorsements compromise the appearance of news fairness at the same time we’re asked to believe that advertising doesn’t compromise coverage of any number of stories is absolutely absurd.
Pogreba writes that the editors at the IR and Tribune are “lacking the courage to potentially offend a reader or advertiser.”
Moreover, Pogreba says, in today’s media climate, endorsements serve as kindling for online conversations between well-read political blogs, Twitter users and even users of Facebook — a seeming contradiction to part of the Tribune’s reasoning.
Do endorsements matter?
Various polls have shown that newspaper endorsements are both effective and worthless.
Tim Porter, writing in the American Journalism Review in 2004, pointed to numbers from the 1996 election that showed many Americans had no idea which presidential candidate their local newspaper supported — and this at a boom time for newspapers and media influence.
Porter summed up his findings about endorsements thus:
They have some value to some people some of the time in some circumstances, but no one can say how much to whom and when — for sure.
More recently, a focused Pew survey from January showed that endorsements for GOP candidates have little effect on Republican or Republican-leaning voters. Of 1,000 people surveyed, 73 percent said an endorsement from their local newspaper would make no difference in the choices they make at the polls.
Duncan Riley, writing for Inquisitr.com, has an excellent post in which he goes through a long list of quotes about the effectiveness of newspapers endorsements. He came to this conclusion:
Newspaper endorsement don’t matter, at least not that much, and not in a statistical way that would affect the outcome of a national election. They may still count for more in local communities where candidates are much more unknown than Presidential Candidates. Newspaper endorsements are reflective of the current mood of the people in each community, and they give a voice to those preferences, rather then ultimately changing how people may vote.
The Chronicle’s stance
Endorsements at the Chronicle are handled in much the same way as Meltzer describes above. The editorial board (four community members, the managing editor, the opinion page editor and the publisher) meet and interview all the candidates at length. Then they discuss their impressions and vote for an endorsement.
It’s a big job, said managing editor Nick Ehli, and is not one that’s treated lightly.
“Basically, the newspaper believes that endorsing candidates is a serious matter, important to our readership, so we treat those interviews accordingly,” said Ehli.
At no point is a member of the newsroom or reporter involved in the process, and reporters don’t take the endorsements into account when writing political stories.
That doesn’t mean the air of influence or bias isn’t a concern, even among employees who worry about our public perception. However, Ehli said, the paper sees endorsements as an important way to inform readers.
While many papers are choosing not to take a stand on political races, we believe — on the editorial page — it’s wholly appropriate for the Chronicle’s editorial board to weigh in, not only on endorsements, but on all topics we believe are critical to our readership.