Ethics Corner: Journalists Shouldn’t Play Endorsement Game

By: Allan Wolper

Ethics Corner: Journalists Shouldn't Play Endorsement Game

Once upon an election in New York, voters would lock themselves in their polling booths, clutching the editorial page of their favorite newspaper. Then they would click away at the names suggested by those editorials. It was a heady time for editorial writers.

Those days were hard ones for political reporters. No matter how much they tried, the readers and politicians alike knew, wink, wink, wink, wink, that reporters were simply adjuncts of the editorial writers. Liberal papers had reporters who typed with their left hands and conservative papers had right-handed journalists.

No one could dissuade the readers otherwise. Those reader voters had selected clips to confirm their conspiracy theories. Reporters could argue all they wanted to do was present an honest portrait of political life, but few people actually believed them.  

Still, the editorial page remained influential. And their favorite politicians benefited from newspaper endorsements. It had the same kind of cachet as the chroniclers of Broadway and Hollywood.  Meaning the chosen few would immediately buy television and print ads trumpeting the endorsements.

These days, thanks to a “New Normal of Newspaper Marketeers,” anxious to brand their news pages, the editorial page endorsements are losing their luster.

For one thing, the on-line newspaper world is filled with tweeting reporters texting their guts out, bloggers banging madly on their keyboards, Facebooks filled with friends, Linked-in winners and losers, mass emailers, etc.

So there was only one thing a hard writing editorial writer, especially one from a tabloid could do: onto the front page in a call to political arms and legs–warning of dire consequences if voters dared to stray and vote for one of the non-endorsed.

It isn’t working any more in The Big Apple.

Suddenly, the reader began suspecting that a newspaper that pushes a particular candidate instead of reporting on his campaign is heading into an ethical swampland. And it is not to be trusted to trumpet the truth.

In the most recent New York City primary for mayor, the Democratic Party masses turned their backs on all mainline newspapers, and a couple of special interest publications as well. I think that readers are just tired of I Think Journalism. I think they want to know what we found out, not what we think about something.

The New York Times, The Daily News, The New York Post, Newsday, all supported New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn for mayor and the two special publications, El Diario La Prenza and The Amsterdam News, endorsed former New York comptroller Bill Thompson.

The News and the Post splashed their endorsement on their front pages. The Times was a bit more subtle, placing theirs on top of their online edition. But bolstered their editorial page support with a news story that questioned whether the eventual winner of the primary, Bill de Blasio, was someone who had a hard time making decisions.

The marriage of the news and editorial pages, pushed by newspaper marketers to promote their brand, actually hurts the reputation of the news products. Reporters won’t have a chance to even pretend that they are honest evaluators of the political world.

Even The Associated Press, the model of non-political decorum, was affected by the merger of the editorial and news pages. It prompted them to send out a memo that captured the essence of the issue:

“In at least two recent cases, we have seen a few postings on social networks by AP staffers expressing personal opinions on issues in the news. This has happened on The New York State Senate vote on gay marriage and on the Casey Anthony trial. These posts undermine the credibility of our colleagues who have been working so hard to assure balanced and unbiased coverage of these issues.”

The Newark Star Ledger foresaw the endorsement problem back in October, 1973 when it announced that it would no longer endorse political candidates because it left newspapers too open to criticism.

“It seems presumptuous simply to anoint a candidate with an endorsement,” said the then staid Star Ledger. It went on to say that any paper which indulges in editorial politics “becomes vulnerable to criticism that it is biased in its political coverage even though this criticism may be without foundation.”

The Star Ledger eventually succumbed to the lure of the editorial political game and went back to the political endorsement game–a game that shouldn’t be played when so many readers have so many places to get information. It is incumbent on newspapers–which still is the best place to get the news–to remember that their readers need the truth, not what some blogger thinks is the truth.

One more thing: Bill de Blasio won the Democratic primary with 40.8 per cent of the vote. Bill Thompson was second with 26 per cent of the vote. Far behind was Christine Quinn, the winner of the editorial page war, with just 15 per cent of the vote, in third place.
There will be those who say that newspaper endorsements are still important because editorial page writers can sniff out the truth with interviews of candidates and offer an important perspective to disinterested readers.

That was a last century truth. The Internet is polluted with mostly half truths. The role of a paper is to guide a reader to where there are dissenting views. The readers won’t get this kind of information from television which these days consists mostly of people practicing I think journalism, sitting at their computers guessing what is going on out there.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.

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3 thoughts on “Ethics Corner: Journalists Shouldn’t Play Endorsement Game

  • November 21, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    By Mr. Wolper’s logic, newspapers never should editorialize. Any time they express an opinion on any topic that their reporters cover, they can be accused of creating a perception of bias. But readers are independent enough to reject newspapers’ advice if they disagree with it. Rather than portray the mayoral vote in New York as proof of the impotence of newspapers, Mr. Wolper ought to acknowledge that it represents the vitality of the electorate. Done right, endorsements provide readers with informed, thoughtful, independent assessments of candidates and issues. Endorsements aren’t instructions on how to vote; they are arguments for and against particular candidates and issues, arguments readers can weigh as they make up their minds. Newspapers that abandon endorsements or, worse, abandon editorials altogether, fail in a crucial part of their duties to help readers shape their own thinking and to hold public officials accountable.

  • November 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    I believe in the virtue of endorsements (which around here we always title “The Kiss of Death”). In general, I think we move about 10 percent of the late undecided vote, largely because of the respect the paper’s editorial page has in the community. We usually know the candidates better than the average person on the street. We know their strengths and weaknesses because we’ve usually worked with these people for years, either as incumbents or community leaders. We have insights into them the average reader rarely has a chance to see. We know which candidates lie through their teeth about where they stand, no matter what kind of a straight shooter their websites and ads say they are. We know which ones sleep through commission and legislative meetings or come to those meetings unprepared. We know which ones think out and research the issues and which ones just make knee-jerk votes on dogma. The average voter doesn’t. An endorsement editorial gives us a chance to tell them that. I still believe in the gatekeeper theory of the press, and in many ways, that is more important today than ever before. The information overload on the net, the outright falsehoods presented as facts and the insidious distortions have to be filtered out. That’s our job, and if we do it right, people trust us. So, if we tell them candidate A will do a better and more effective job representing them than candidate B, hopefully it will swing any close election to the better candidate. I’d like to think that every voter out there is capable of doing good, objective research, bothers to stay informed, and is knowledgeable about the candidates and the issues. Unfortunately, I know they’re not. Most don’t even start to think about it until near the election (except for major national or state races, which are a small fraction of the total races on the ballot). An endorsement editorial can keep them from making horrible mistakes, in particular in the smaller, less well known but vitally important local races. It also gives us a chance to explain our reasoning, which the reader can then use to determine how we think when we’re covering an election. It lets them see the filters we use with all our other editorials and to evaluate how well we are at being objective and keeping our opinions out of the campaign stories. Overall, the only down side to an endorsement editorial is the people who never forgive you for not supporting their candidate. Fortunately, the “never forgives” are a fairly small group. But in terms of our responsibility to be a voice for and leader of our community, I think they’re extremely important.

  • December 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    So many leaps of logic by Mr. Wolper. The AP memo has nothing to do with “the merger of the editorial and news pages,” but instead is about journalists finding proper and ethical ways to utilize the new tools of social media. I won’t repeat the comments made by Andy Young, other than to say I agree with his post.


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