What’s at stake when newspapers abdicate their duty to endorse candidates? Plenty.

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tags: politics, 2020 Election, endorsements

Rita Kirk is director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility as well as an Altshuler Distinguished Professor in Corporate Communication & Public Affairs at SMU Dallas. Her research focuses on campaign communication, the development of public arguments, and a phenomenon that cannot be ignored in current discourse: hate speech. 

There was a time when voters would take a copy of the ballot they clipped out of the newspaper with them to the polls when they voted.  Recommendations of the newspaper editorial staff were often used as a guide to decision making, particularly in down-ballot races where the candidates were less known than the presidential candidates, senate and congressional seats at the top of the ballot. These editorial endorsements prove useful – and often pivotal – when candidates lack name recognition, have limited funds to disseminate a message,  or when voter fatigue sets in during down-ballot choices.


Yet those days are fading for a number of reasons.  Printed sample ballots are old school now that online versions allow voters to enter a zip code and produce a unique ballot specific to  precinct and state elections. Early voting condenses the time available to interview all the candidates. Further, angry voters are ill disposed to trust media opinions.  But another trend is more troubling:  the declining practice of newspapers editorial endorsements of candidates.


Financially, that choice makes sense. After all, editorial endorsements can be controversial. During the 2016 election newspapers who endorsed Clinton in Republican-dense population areas discovered a loss of revenue due to declining advertising sales and loss of subscriptions, which were directly attributable to disagreements with their editorial stances.  These dips are intensified in our polarized political climate.  Unlike social media or television news stations that cater to particular points of view, newspapers moved away from being party presses to a neutral arbiter of news in the 1920s and have tried to remain there. Though some still view themselves as objective arbiters of news and endorse based on candidate interviews and familiarity with candidates over time, they suffered in 2016 if they violated the party allegiances of readers.  


Traditionally, the real influence of editorial endorsements is strongest among moderate voters.   Unlike television news, research shows that those newspapers with perceived biases in editorials make their endorsements less influential. Importantly, when newspaper endorsements are “surprising” and go against tradition, they are most effective.  In 2016, then, we might have expected that endorsements for Hillary Clinton from the top conservative newspapers would have had influence.  Among the top 100 newspapers as determined by readership,  57 endorsed Hillary while only 2 (The Las Vegas Review-Journal and The Florida Times Union) endorsed Trump.  Other leading newspapers declined endorsements or, as in the case of three newspapers, merely recommended “not Trump.”  Somewhat surprising then, in 2016 those that were predicted to be the most influential paid the price with loss of subscriptions, protests, and even death threats.  Among those who broke ranks with traditional endorsements was the Dallas Morning News, which had not endorsed a Democrat since 1940.  Other traditionally conservative newspapers who endorsed Clinton met similar fates including The Arizona Republic, which had not endorsed a Democrat since 1890 and the San Diego Union Tribune, which had not endorsed a Democrat in its 148-year history.


Based on this evidence, editorial endorsements should be discontinued, right?  After all, financial sustainability is an imperative in our current political and economic climate.  Wrong.  Now, more than ever, we need thought leaders on editorial boards to step forward.  Why?  Their duty to inform is coming under attack.  Already under financial pressure to survive, newspapers met additional obstacles once President Trump was elected. Not only did he Tweet in support of newspaper subscription cancellations as protests for their editorial choices, he  denied press credentials to reporters who did not support his candidacy. Shutting down access to information harms the body politic and certainly limits the ability of news organizations to be relevant and timely.  That does not excuse journalists from their duty to inform.


The purpose of editorials should not be to win hearts and minds; rather it should be to provoke thought.  In an age when it is easier to throw darts than think, editorials challenge us. Especially when they are in disagreement, they establish thoughtful reasoning.  Moreover, they challenge voters to talk about their opinions with others.  That is the heart of democratic decision making:  voters talking with other voters, citizens entering into respectful disagreement.


Down-ballot races suffer when newspapers fail to endorse.  These elections are perhaps more important than the flashy top ballot races as they directly affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens.  Except for the seven states that still permit straight-ticket voting (the voter would vote for all Democrats or all Republicans with a single vote), there is a decided decrease in voting as length of the ballot increases.  Even in Presidential election years, candidates may win a local  race with only a few hundred people casting votes.  Critically, these down-ballot contests account for 97% of all elections in the U.S.  


Newspapers never cease seeking their niche in the media market.  Perhaps no greater service could be offered than the civics education endorsements offer.  Just as local newspapers that cover football games and piano recitals are carving a foothold, print media has the opportunity to increase civics education by continuing to endorse.  Who sets property tax rates in your community? What is the diversity among law enforcement leaders, prosecutors and judges? How are electoral districts drawn in the statehouses? What qualifies a person to serve in those capacities? 


Perhaps there is an argument for dropping editorial endorsements of presidential candidates.  The 97%?  We need you to do your job.

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