Washington and Lee University student Michael McGuire shared a personal anecdote illustrating the difficulties reporters face in presenting themselves as unbiased to sources and community members — difficulties that are heightened when the papers they work for endorse one candidate or political party over another. Elizabeth Sullivan, op-ed editor at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, said that the paper’s opinion page is a place for just that — opinion. No one knows the ins and outs of politics quite like the editorial staff of a newspaper — especially on local matters — so the paper has a responsibility to share that knowledge with community members and help voters make an informed decision.
The debate continued in the comments section when the story went up on editorandpublisher.com, with valid points and counterpoints on each side. Those in favor of endorsements believe them to be a critical element of what makes a newspaper whole. Those against say the paper’s responsibility is to report the news, not attempt to sway elections. Disenchanted commenter Steve Reiter snarked, “Why not? The news is already so slanted anyway.”
In mid-August, The Oregonian announced in an editorial that it would not endorse a presidential candidate this election season. The paper’s official reason for the non-endorsement was based on lack of access and insider knowledge — the very factors Sullivan cited in her argument in favor of endorsements. According to the Oregonian editorial, “Our CNN-level view of the presidential race is similar to everyone else’s.”
While Portland media circles speculated the paper would have endorsed Mitt Romney but feared the near-certain backlash that would arise from its mostly liberal readership, publisher N. Christian Anderson III swatted those rumors aside and told the Willamette Week, “I’m convinced there aren’t any readers waiting with bated breath for a top-of-the-mountain proclamation from The Oregonian telling them how to vote in the presidential race in November.”
One E&P commenter pointed out the very real possibility that, given the nature of the current race, perhaps the Oregonian didn’t find either candidate worthy of the endorsement nod.
The question of to endorse or not to endorse is not a new one; we’re just picking up where we left off in 2008. There truly is no right or wrong answer, and you won’t find anything on the topic in the AP Style Guide. It is up to each publisher to determine the best course for his or her own paper, and be ready to defend that decision in the court of public opinion.
In past presidential election cycles, E&P has kept a running tally of the various endorsements (and non-endorsements) issued by newspapers across the country, and we will continue that tradition this year. Beginning this month, editorandpublisher.com will have a special section dedicated to election coverage where we’ll be tracking your endorsements and including, when possible, information on past endorsements for comparison.
This, of course, is not something I can pretend to do a comprehensive job of from the confines of my desk, so I’m asking for your help. When your paper (or another in your area), issues a presidential endorsement, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will be updating the site and taking your comments. Let the games begin. —KA