Editorial: Time for Newspapers to Get Real About Election Endorsements
Posted: 12/21/2012  |  By: Kristina Ackermann
Between accusations of biased coverage, waning power to influence readers, and the very real potential to drive away advertisers, newspapers are better off keeping their political endorsements to themselves.

Over this past election cycle, E&P tallied every presidential endorsement we could get our hands on (the still-incomplete list is online at editorandpublisher.com/election) and noticed a few interesting trends. One was how far many endorsing newspapers were from actual voter preference; the other was the number of papers that chose to forgo issuing any endorsement at all. You could say that one begets the other, but that conclusion paints only a partial picture.

In the critical swing state of Ohio, Republican Mitt Romney was endorsed by a number of dailies, including heavy hitters the Columbus Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer. Columbus is the seat of Franklin County, which supported President Obama by more than 60 percent at the voting booths. Hamilton County, serviced by the Enquirer, favored Obama by nearly 52 percent, a margin that helped push Ohio into the blue and seal the president’s re-election.

Arguments that newspapers are “out of touch” with their readership miss the point. The Dispatch and the Enquirer didn’t intend their endorsements to be a bellwether of existing political sentiment; they were trying to persuade readers to vote in line with their own views. They failed. Meanwhile, those newspapers that sat out the endorsement game were trying to present the unbiased product promised to readers and advertisers. They succeeded.

E&P’s Newsosaur columnist Alan Mutter wrote on his blog that “a newspaper lacking the gumption to endorse a presidential candidate looks pretty lame in a day when opinions are a dime a dozen on the Internet.” I say this is precisely why newspapers should abstain from endorsing political candidates.

The last thing readers need is one more unsolicited political opinion. Opinions — both logical and ludicrous — are impossible to escape in our hyper-connected society, and while I don’t know one person who made it through election night without defriending a longtime associate on Facebook, I do know many who would benefit from a healthy dose of hard facts.

Readers need facts to make informed decisions for themselves, and newspapers are perhaps the most historically well-regarded and trusted source of said facts. Any use of the opinion page to sway voters is a violation of that trust, and notable newspapers across the country opted out of endorsing a presidential candidate for this very reason.

There’s also an element of respect shown in presenting news and giving your audience space to come to its own conclusion. When a paper respects its readers, readers in turn respect the paper and will be more inclined to renew their subscription once the election is over. Just ask the San Diego Union-Tribune, whose circulation has slipped more than 4 percent year-over-year since hotel magnate Doug Manchester bought the paper and began using it to trumpet his personal business and political agenda.

Political opinions are indeed a dime a dozen, which is why newspapers should stick to what they’re good at: hard-hitting, watchdogging, muckraking journalism that gets to the meat of each candidate’s campaign. Leave endorsements to the bloggers.