Plan now for endorsements, the final step of election coverage

by | May 1, 2012 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/May 2012

Readers have been inundated for months with coverage of the 2012 presidential election. But newsrooms should also be brainstorming for ways to bring attention to local races.

Election coverage is one of the most exhaustive and scrutinized tasks facing community newsrooms. Substantive coverage also is vitally important to an informed and engaged citizenry.

Most important, editors and publishers should give consideration to endorsing candidates for local office. Newspapers have a right – a responsibility, even – as a community institution and clearinghouse of information.

Editorial endorsements often receive the usual outcry from readers: “What gives you the right to tell us who to vote for?” The anticipated pushback only makes newspapers more hesitant. It is also an excellent reminder that editors should make it regular practice to educate readers on the role of editorial pages. A healthy exchange of ideas is at the core of healthy communities.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges inherent in offering local endorsements. Perhaps the best advice is: “Just the facts, please.” In other words, stick to issues and avoid personalities in most cases. The strongest editorials are those that identify the issues paramount in a race, and then recommend candidates based on their stances.

The reality is that community newspaper editors – absent a personal relationship with, say, a member of Congress – find it relatively painless to weigh in on the strengths and shortcomings of national candidates. It’s quite the opposite when newspapers are recommending whom citizens should support for the local school board, city council or county board – and even legislative contests. Yet these races are arguably the most important for community newspapers to address in news profiles and endorsements.

Editors and publishers routinely are challenged on editorials, especially if readers perceive a feud or ongoing editorial disagreements between a newspaper and a particular candidate. The most difficult circumstances are local races where candidates may have personal relationships with the newspaper — specifically with someone in management. Those endorsements will be scrutinized. It is naive to believe that personal relationships do not play a role in endorsements, but issues ought to be the foundation.

In that regard, one early newsroom exercise should be a brainstorming session on the primary issues in each race. These issues will be the basis for candidate interviews, and the candidates’ responses will provide a framework for endorsements.

For those newspapers that still are skeptical about endorsing specific individuals in local races, consider starting with an editorial outlining what the newspaper considers to be the key issues in a race – and where you stand on these issues – and encourage readers to vote for the individuals who align with those stances. The editorial simply message allows readers to connect the dots.

The final step is to allow feedback.  The effectiveness of any editorial is minimized if readers aren’t allowed to debate its merits. Newspapers routinely promote the editorial page as the heart of the First Amendment. Yet too many newspapers routinely present their endorsements only days before — and sometimes even after — the deadline has passed for election commentary.

It’s unfortunate, and even a bit paradoxical, that editorial endorsements are becoming increasingly scarce. Consider that editorials frequently urge government bodies to take action, or take officials to task for lack of action. It seems a natural parallel that newspapers should have equally strong convictions about the people who will ultimately make those decisions. If newspapers tout their roles as government watchdogs, endorsing candidates for elected bodies should be at the top of their responsibilities.