Rules of Endorsement

by | Dec 1, 2006 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Editor & Publisher Shoptalk (on-line edition)/December 2006

Coverage of the coming 2008 elections is already building. But it’s vital to consider, at the same time, that editorial endorsements in local elections are becoming increasingly scarce among community newspapers. Newspapers like to tout their role as government watchdogs, so endorsing local candidates should be routine — and free of pressure from “local interests.”

Midterm elections are by the wayside, and presidential candidates are lining up for 2008. In no time, Editor & Publisher will be polling editors about their presidential selections. An even more important query is to poll editors on whether they will even endorse candidates, and specifically candidates in local races. With all due respect to the presidential election, community newspaper editors ought to give greatest attention to informing and recommending to readers who, in their estimation, are the best individuals to shape public policy for the betterment of their communities.

It’s unfortunate that editorial endorsements are becoming increasingly scarce among community newspapers. Consider the paradox that editorials frequently urge government bodies to take action, or take officials to task for lack of action. In that vein, shouldn’t newspapers 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 editors’ responsibilities.

The hesitation to endorse in local races is likely for the familiar refrain: “What gives you the right to tell us who to vote for?” Editors should make it a regular practice to educate readers on the role of editorial pages. A healthy exchange of ideas is at the core of healthy communities.

The reality is that community newspaper editors — absent a personal relationship with a George Bush or John Kerry — find it relatively painless to weigh in on the strengths and shortcomings of national candidates. It’s quite the opposite when newspapers are recommending who 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.

This is not 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. The strongest editorials are those that identify the issues paramount in a race, and then recommend individuals for office based on where they align with the issues.

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 all or some of the candidates may have personal relationships with the newspaper — specifically with someone in management. Those endorsements will be scrutinized both for whom the newspaper does and does not endorse. It is naĆ®ve to believe that personal relationships do not play a role in endorsements, but issues ought to be the foundation for each decision.

In that regard, one of the early exercises 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.

A discussion of endorsements is incomplete without noting two other essential elements. No. 1, give readers and candidates alike an opportunity to challenge the editorials. No. 2, make sure endorsements are local endorsements.

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.

Endorsements also should recommend candidates on the basis of their stances on local issues. It’s unfortunate that the growing consolidation of newspaper ownership and “common endorsements” from corporate headquarters are allowed to prevail in certain races. The pitfalls of such a policy are clear. Consider an endorsement which advances a gubernatorial candidate on the strength of his rural advocacy. The argument certainly has merit for many constituents. But how is the candidate recommendation received by — even relevant to — those readers in metropolitan suburbs who are delivered the endorsement?

More disturbing, however, is the fact that these editorial mandates usually are handed down only during elections. The candidates and positions endorsed often do not reflect — and are even contrary to – longstanding positions taken by local editors. Yet the positions are reversed with no explanation to readers. At minimum, these endorsements should carry a tagline referencing their origin. Then go a step further and allow the local newspapers to offer a minority opinion, if they so wish.

Vibrant editorial pages are the essence of vibrant citizenries. The diverse landscape of daily and weekly newspapers plays a role in fostering a healthy exchange of opinions. In the interest of full disclosure, readers should know the source of nonlocal endorsements — especially when candidates tout their multiple newspaper endorsements.