Newsroom experts

Should newspapers still endorse political candidates?

While there is no such thing as a “typical” presidential race, 2016 has perhaps taken that sentiment to heart, and run with it.

Both candidates have long histories of being in the public eye, albeit in different capacities, which means each has well-documented personal and professional information that is becoming more well-documented by the second. Whether you question Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness over her email usage or doubt Donald Trump’s temperament after his Twitter tirades or statements about women, immigrants or our current government, there is no denying the public’s scrutiny of the journalism industry itself and the very manner in which the 2016 presidential race has been covered.

From reporters being shut out of Trump rallies to being accused of sexism in their reports about Clinton, neither campaign has had a particularly favorable view of media coverage.

A notable difference this election is how newspapers have handled the tradition of presidential endorsements — many papers have endorsed a different party for the first time in decades, and USA Today has even broken its 34-year no-endorsement policy to come out against a Trump presidency.

In the case of the Dallas Morning News, which has traditionally endorsed Republican candidates, endorsing Clinton meant taking a large subscriber hit, which is perhaps not entirely surprising in conservative Texas. In the case of The Repository in Canton, Ohio, which decided that it would not endorse either candidate, reader reaction was strong enough to elicit a follow-up editorial from editor Rich Desrosiers.

I reached out to editors to see how they were handling endorsements this year and to find out if the tradition of endorsements is even worth it to papers.

The Columbus Dispatch

Alan Miller, editor, The Columbus Dispatch

The Columbus Dispatch's Alan Miller
The Columbus Dispatch’s Alan Miller

“The Dispatch endorsement of John Kasich wasn’t a surprise to many of our readers. He is the governor of our state, he has done a good job in that capacity, and he has a long and generally positive track record in public service. We had said virtually all of that in editorials about him and his work through the years.

We also published an editorial in December saying that Donald Trump is unfit to be president.

The Dispatch editorial board’s opinion on that point has not changed.

We have been publishing endorsements for candidates and regarding issues on the general election ballot for several weeks now. We will publish an endorsement in the presidential race before early voting begins in Ohio on Oct. 12. Among the factors we consider in endorsing any candidate are experience, temperament, moral character, diplomacy skills, and demonstration of the ability to lead.”

Journal StarMike Bailey, editorial page editor, Journal Star

GateHouse Newsroom: The Journal Star has endorsed presidential candidates in the past. What has the general feedback been from your readers when you’ve made those endorsements?

Mike Bailey: General feedback from endorsements is always mixed. Some readers are with you, others are angry. Things took an especially emphatic — nasty and personal — turn in 2008 with Barack Obama running for president. We’ll see it again this year — already have — with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, lightning rods both, on the ballot. Goes with the territory any time you take a stand, though I must say I find the level of ignorance out there about what an Opinion Page is and does depressing.

GHN: PJStar endorsed candidates in the primaries, is there a plan to make a presidential endorsement this year as well? Why or why not?

MB: Yes, we will be endorsing for president, because that’s what a newspaper that takes itself seriously does.

GHN: Based on times in the past when your editorial board has made endorsements in national and local elections, what types of endorsements elicit more engagement with your readers? Do you find that readers are more interested in PJStar’s endorsements in local or national elections?

MB: I’d say that for the most part, readers are more engaged with the national election. Despite its being closest to home, most pay almost no attention to — and know next to nothing about — local government.

The Providence JournalEdward C. Achorn, vice president and editorial pages editor, The Providence Journal

The Providence Journal's Edward Achorn
The Providence Journal’s Edward Achorn

GateHouse Newsroom: The Providence Journal has endorsed presidential candidates in the past. What has the general feedback been from your readers when you’ve made those endorsements?

Edward Achorn: Readers in this very political state care very much what we think, even they disagree. They see endorsements as an important part of the discussion of elections, which of course are crucial to our system of self-government. Our endorsements are one of the means for readers to passionately engage with us.

GHN: ProJo endorsed candidates in the primaries, is there a plan to make a presidential endorsement this year as well? Why or why not?

EA: Emphatically so. Again, readers see the endorsement as part of the election debate. They are entertained and informed, and our endorsement will contribute to passionate discussion. Though rarely does Rhode Island, a predominantly Democratic state, shift enough to become a swing vote in the Electoral College, this year it could. Which makes an endorsement all the more crucial. Certainly our publisher is dead set on one.

GHN: Based on times in the past when your editorial board has made endorsements in national and local elections, what types of endorsements elicit more engagement with your readers? Do you find that readers are more interested in ProJo’s endorsements in local or national elections?

EA: To be honest, I think there is great interest in both local and nation for the reasons stated.

Endorsements can have a powerful effect in state races — notably for governor and mayor of our city-state.

Rhode Island is a small state. Providence is its capital and only major city. We are the go-to place for serious discussion of what affects the state. That is a strong selling point, a major reason people buy the paper. What is said on our editorial pages shapes what state and city government does, what gets pushed, and what political corruption gets stopped. Readers do look to us for informed opinions, even if they do not always agree. They look for guidance, too, on state ballot questions.

Also we have clearly swung elections, as in 2014 when we helped our now-governor squeak by, and kept a twice-convicted felon who went to prison for running City Hall as a criminal enterprise out of the Providence mayor’s office.

So, should newspapers still endorse political candidates?

Newspapers shouldn’t fear repercussion for having an opinion, just the same as journalists shouldn’t be afraid to report news they fear might be unpopular.

Newspapers shying away from controversy for the sake of editorial ease does a disservice to readers and reporters alike, and censorship of any sort should never be on the table in any newsroom whether that means being for or against a candidate or explicitly not endorsing anyone.

 

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