Endorsements: A Newspaper’s Responsibility?

Writing for the Tennessee Press Association, newspaper advisor and trainer Jim Pumarlo writes about the duty of newspapers to endorse political candidates:

Most important, editors and publishers should give consideration to endorsing candidates for local office. Newspapers have a right – indeed, a responsibility – as an institution in their communities. They are also in excellent position to do so as a clearinghouse of information.

This is an area I feel rather strongly about when it comes to the role of community journalists and community newspapers. Realizing that my viewpoint on the matter differs from the vast majority of my colleagues, I am nonetheless steadfast in my belief that newspapers are actually doing their readers a bit of a disservice by endorsing candidates. That is a belief I had formed before I joined the Oneida Independent Herald — where I’ve worked for just over nine years now (the paper I worked for prior to moving back to Oneida did endorse candidates) — but the Independent Herald was actually founded with that very same viewpoint 36 years ago.

From the first edition of the Independent Herald in June 1976:

Though we will, from time to time, editorialize on local issues, it will not be an attempt to mold public opinion. We reserve the right guaranteed us by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, to express our views on issues that affect the lives of our readers. By the same token, we welcome opposing viewpoints, for the Constitution did not give us freedom of the press for the sake of a few outspoken journalists, but for everyone. The framers of that nearly 200-year old document were more interested in protecting the public than the press. Like and opposing viewpoints of this newspaper will appear on the editorial page alongside our own. All responsible signed letters to the editor will be printed in the first available issue.

The Independent Herald will not endorse candidates for political office, but will make every attempt to keep our readers aware of who those candidates are and the office they are seeking. There will be a clear distinction between paid political advertisements and news reports of a candidate’s decision to seek office.

To his credit, Pumarlo goes on to say that newspapers should avoid making endorsements based on personality, but should stick to the facts and the issues:

Perhaps the best advice is: “Just the facts, please.” In other words, in most cases stick to issues and avoid personalities. The strongest editorials are those that identify the issues paramount in a race, and then recommend candidates based on their stances.

If a community newspaper is doing its job, its publisher, editor and reporters will be able to identify the issues that are most important to their community more readily than just about anyone. But it’s still a little presumptuous for newspapers to feel qualified to tell voters whom they should or shouldn’t vote for based on the issues the newspaper identifies as important and the candidates’ stance on those issues.

Perhaps if it was as simple as that — just the facts, ma’am — the argument for newspaper endorsements would be a little more clear-cut. At most community newspapers, however, the personalities working at the paper and the personalities running for political office are often hopelessly intertwined. It’s nearly impossible to avoid the persona that the newspaper is endorsing a candidate based on connections and friendships. And, too many times, it’s more than a persona; it’s an actuality. That doesn’t mean the publisher, editor and/or editorial board are inept at their job; it just means that they’re human.

My opinion is that the newspaper and its readers alike are best-served by steering away from endorsements and sticking to covering the candidates and the issues. A newspaper that is worth its salt is one that will have given its readers a solid understanding of where each candidate stands on important issues by the time election day rolls around. Cover all the candidates and their stances on the issues fairly and without bias and the need for those endorsements will be eliminated.

Chicago Sun-Times publisher John Barron said it succinctly when his newspaper announced earlier this year that it would stop endorsing political candidates: “As many of you have told us, you can make up your own mind, thank you very much. We endorse that opinion.”

In the wake of the Sun-Times’ decision, the Northern Star — the student newspaper at Northern Illinois University — announced that it, too, would stop endorsing candidates, saying: “At a time where any and all information is at our fingertips, it’s up to you, the voter, to figure out who represents your views best. As for us, we’ll help guide you to the policies that could influence that process. And that’s the way it should be.”

Last month, the Eau Claire (Wisc.) Leader-Telegram reiterated its stance on endorsing candidates, saying: “A single endorsement editorial published on the eve of an election will inevitably color readers’ perceptions of the rest of the coverage we offer on our Opinions and news pages over the course of a two-, four- or six-year term of office.”

Those are solid opinions, backed up by Pew Center for the People & Press research, which recently showed that newspaper endorsements “dissuade as many Americans as they persuade.”

To put it simply, study after study has shown that newspapers have a trust issue with consumers. Contrary to popular opinion, partisanship in the press isn’t nearly as great today as it was 80-100 years ago. But in a day when many newspapers are struggling to stay relevant in a rapidly changing society, shouldn’t they work to regain their readers’ trust instead of hanging on to age-old traditions and the self-aggrandizing that is all too common in many newsrooms?