Endorsements: A Journalistic Obligation?

When members of The Concord (N.H.) Monitor‘s editorial board met to assess the 2008 presidential candidates, they reached a unanimous agreement: Mitt Romney should not be the next president.

So the paper published an anti-endorsement on Dec. 22, calling Romney a “phony” and “a disquieting figure who sure looks like the next president and most surely must be stopped.”

One week later, the paper ran its traditional endorsements, encouraging readers to vote for John McCain and Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire presidential primaries. 

Despite research challenging the effectiveness of endorsements, many news organizations embrace the tradition because, as they see it, endorsing candidates is a journalistic obligation to readers.

“We have such a rare opportunity as residents but also as journalists to listen to these candidates,” said Monitor editor Felice Belman, who wrote the anti-endorsement. “Why wouldn’t we give readers the opportunity to tell them what we’ve learned?”

Part of fulfilling that obligation means understanding that not everyone is going to agree, Belman said. The paper generally receives 10 letters to the editor a day. The day after the anti-endorsement ran, Belman said about 350 letters came in.

The first wave of comments was split between those who agreed and those who did not. Romney campaign supporters, Belman said, dominated much of the second wave. She noted that about a half dozen readers wrote to the paper asking to cancel their subscription.

On its Web site, the Monitor published a selection of letters to the editor from local readers. A New York Times‘ piece on the anti-endorsement generated more than 300 comments, with one reader saying, “The Concord Monitor is a worthless rag who’s place should be next to the toilet.” Another wrote: “I’m impressed by The Concord Monitor coming right out and saying what obviously many of us already knew. In the past seven years or so the press generally has been far too meek.”

A 2004 Pew Research Center study measuring the mass media’s influences on voters found that endorsements by politicians, celebrities, institutions, etc., were a “minor factor” in determining voter decisions in the 2004 elections. Of the people surveyed for the study, 83 percent said it made no difference to them who their local newspaper endorsed.

In her 2000 book, “Everything You Think You Know about Politics and Why You’re Wrong,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communications, found that 1 percent of people who knew of their newspaper’s endorsement said it “greatly” impacted their vote, while 10 percent said it “somewhat” impacted their vote.

Allen H. Neuharth, founder of USA Today has been a leading critic of the endorsement tradition. In a 2004 column he advised readers: “Don’t let anyone tell you how to mark your ballot. … Many newspaper editors and owners still cling to the old-fashioned idea that they know better than you how you should vote.”

Dismissing the argument that endorsements are anachronistic, Belman said endorsements are important because they’re the result of 1:1 interviews with the presidential candidates — something most voters will never get.

She noted that at smaller papers like the Monitor, endorsements often have more of an effect on local, rather than national, elections.

Sometimes, readers vote based on their paper’s pick because they don’t have the time or desire to study the background and characteristics of, say, a dozen school board candidates. In November, all of the Monitor‘s picks for the Concord, N.H., school board won their races, Belman said.

Allen Johnson, editorial page editor at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., agreed that even endorsements at middle-sized papers like the News & Record tend to have the most clout in local and state races. He said many people don’t have a clue who to vote for when it comes to races for the agricultural commissioner, state
auditor, district court judges, etc.

“We’ll explain, ‘Here’s what this person does and here’s why you ought to care.’ Then we make an argument for who we think is best,” he noted. “We’ve had readers call and say ‘When are your judicial endorsements coming? We need some guidance.’ Other times, readers may look at the paper’s endorsements and know who not to vote for, Johnson said.

The News & Record, a Landmark Communications newspaper, no longer runs presidential endorsements as part of Landmark’s recent decision to stop publishing them. Johnson, who was involved in the recent Landmark decision, said presidential candidates don’t usually have an occasion to talk to the News & Record as they do in Iowa or New Hampshire, so it’s better that the paper not endorse a candidate its editors haven’t met.

Endorsements at the News & Record, Johnson said, have become less diverse with consolidation and the changing landscape of newspapers. He noted that the paper used to have a morning edition that leaned to the left and an afternoon edition that leaned to the right. Both had separate editorial staffs and sometimes featured different endorsements. Now, the paper has just one editorial page, which tends to lean to the left, Johnson said.

Similar to the Monitor‘s anti-endorsement, the News & Record has run a “none of the above” endorsement. During a recall election for a county commissioner’s race, the paper decided that neither of the candidates was very good, Johnson said. Later in the general election, however, the paper chose to run an endorsement after seeing changes in the candidates.

“We continue to keep track of what they’re saying and doing, and our views evolve on these things. Sometimes human beings change their minds, we’re not that rigid to feel that way,” Johnson said.

“Candidates change, and they grow, some of them actually mature as they’re on the campaign trail.”

Perhaps one way to make endorsements more effective is to change the way they are presented. “Editorial pages are trying to get away from the voice of God and not sound so pompous and self important. Endorsements can be funny, creative, and I think they can be informative,” Johnson said. “They don’t always have to be done by the same strict template.”

Along with blogging about the candidates, the News & Record has done Web casts and has allowed candidates to record video statements for the paper’s Web site.

Other papers, such as The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, have also experimented with different ways of approaching endorsements. Last week, the Register ran written and video endorsements for McCain and Clinton. In the videos, Carol Hunter, the Register‘s editorial page editor, spoke about the candidates the paper had endorsed and explained why viewers should vote for them.

In Johnson’s mind, there is no question that endorsements, in whatever form they appear, are important.

“They are absolutely and positively a duty, I believe. If you’re encouraging the reader to get out there and be a part of the process, why would we sit on the sidelines? Johnson said. “We make it clear: You don’t have to follow what we say. Read it and disagree, and make your own choice. We just want to give you something to think about. I think most of our readers are smart enough to realize that we’re not so presumptuous to think we have that kind of power.”

How much power do news organizations have to sway voters? Should they use it? Share your thoughts here.

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