October 17, 2016

On Sunday, The St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press dealt with a reaction several other newspapers have over the last few months. After it endorsed a candidate for president, some subscribers called to cancel. Comments beneath the endorsement and on Facebook were mostly filled with angry readers.

But there was a difference. Instead of angering their audience for an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, The News-Press drew criticism for its backing of Donald Trump.

“We’ve heard from about two dozen callers this morning,” said Dennis Ellsworth, editor in chief, in an email. “We’ll be working to keep them as subscribers, and part of that is to remind each of them that one editorial opinion — however controversial — needs to be balanced against the many other reasons they chose to subscribe in the first place.”

Related NewsU course: Endorsements: why do news organizations even bother?

The News-Press (where I worked for five years) has mostly endorsed Republican presidential candidates in the past, although they’ve also endorsed Democrats in state and local races. Now, Ellsworth said, they’re working to remind readers that editorial opinions are different from the news.

“We are proud of newsroom’s efforts over many years to provide balanced reporting on issues of importance to the community. Those efforts will continue and are not influenced by the opinion in the presidential race.”

The Dallas Morning News went against tradition earlier this year by endorsing a Democrat for the first time in 75 years. That cost the newspaper subscribers and led to protests outside the newsroom. The Arizona Republic also broke with custom by endorsing a Democrat for the first time, a decision that provoked multiple death threats. The publisher responded on Sunday:

To those who said we should be shut down, burned down, who said they hoped we would cease to exist under a new presidential administration, I give you Nicole. She is our editor who directs the news staff, independent of our endorsements. After your threats, Nicole put on her press badge and walked with her reporters and photographers into the latest Donald Trump rally in Prescott Valley, Ariz. She stood as Trump encouraged his followers to heckle and boo and bully journalists. Then she came back to the newsroom to ensure our coverage was fair. Nicole knows free speech requires an open debate.

Similarly, USA Today went against its tradition of not taking sides in the presidential election by “disendorsing” Trump:

Our bottom-line advice for voters is this: Stay true to your convictions. That might mean a vote for Clinton, the most plausible alternative to keep Trump out of the White House. Or it might mean a third-party candidate. Or a write-in. Or a focus on down-ballot candidates who will serve the nation honestly, try to heal its divisions, and work to solve its problems.

Whatever you do, however, resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.

The News-Press isn’t alone in endorsing Trump, however. The Santa Barbara News-Press also endorsed the candidate, though the two don’t share owners.

It’s important to view these endorsements in the context of the unprecedented political season, said Mizell Stewart, vice president of news operations at USA Today, an officer on ASNE’s board of directors and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. Newspapers, especially local newspapers, have endorsed political candidates for years, he said, and sometimes for generations.

Now, they’re falling victim to the prevailing attitude that the media can’t be trusted.

The practice of endorsements hasn’t changed, but climate for the media has become more hostile. Because of that, it’s important that newsroom leaders explain what they’re doing, he said. Stewart held up the response from The Arizona Republic as an example.

“What it did was it underscored the value and the importance of the First Amendment and the duty that journalists have to the First Amendment, and the fact that the First Amendment is not just a tool for journalists,” he said, “the First Amendment is a tool for every citizen.”

Journalists have to keep explaining why they do what they do, Stewart said, to continue to explain the importance of free speech, “and that traditional practices such as editorial endorsements are just that.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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