It's the home stretch of the election season, which means it's time for everyone's favorite unimportant section of the news cycle. No, not the part where Donald Trump continues his sad and depressing cry for help. It's the part where a bunch of outdated newspapers that no one buys write endorsements that no one reads for candidates that no one likes.
I kid, I kid. Mostly (I'm really worried about Donald Trump, guys). Still, there's no shortage of political pundits willing to enthusiastically trumpet the alleged irrelevancy of the newspaper endorsement. Take this recent column from The Week, where conservative writer Edward Morrissey concludes that endorsements are "at best meaningless anachronisms, and at worst damaging to the newspapers themselves." Or this piece from the Associated Press, which argues that declining readerships and increasing concerns about credibility are contributing to the decline of the endorsement (as a bonus, the piece also includes a beautiful quotation from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editor David Haynes, who calls the endorsement “a ghost of newspapering past”). Taken together, these articles sum up the traditional complaints about newspaper endorsements: they threaten the objective credentials of the paper, they offer little to the ongoing political discourse and they are not widely read, anyway.
In light of this seemingly inevitable decline, is there still any point to newspaper endorsements? Medill professors Larry Stuelpnagel and Peter Slevin would argue yes, there are still numerous reasons for newspapers, both major and minor, to continue endorsing candidates. Certainly, some of the criticisms are correct. Stuelpnagel, a lecturer in Weinberg’s Political Science department in addition to his duties as a Medill professor, points out that there is little research on endorsements in general. But he does say that “the research that is out there shows that the endorsements…really have no measurable impact on the outcome of the election." Though such research is difficult to conduct, since cause and effect are difficult to disentangle (endorsements and votes may both be outcomes of a separate cause, rather than endorsements affecting voting patterns), polling by Pew suggests that the effect of endorsements is minor at best, if it exists.
Slevin called the value of newspaper endorsements "limited," pointing out that in major races, much is already known about the candidates, and editorial boards can offer few arguments that voters haven’t already heard. But both argued that focusing solely on the impact of endorsements on the presidential campaign misses the point.
Something that can be easy to forget in the flurry of campaign advertisements and 24-hour news networks is that for many people, the presidential race will have significantly less impact on their day-to-day living than local elections. Of course, there is significantly more information available about presidential elections than local elections, and even when it comes to important posts like judgeships, voters are frequently flying blind. That’s where endorsements come into play. Editorial boards usually have collective decades of experience in covering local politics, and generally do a good job comparing local candidates and outlining their reasons for picking one candidate over another. Whether or not you agree with a newspaper, reading their endorsements is still educational and helpful.
And for all of the complaints that are valid, just as many rely on inaccurate premises. One of the major accusations leveled against endorsements is that they raise questions about the journalistic integrity of the paper that runs them. Having chosen sides, the argument goes, how can the paper’s reporting be at all reliable? Slevin, whose decade of work for the Washington Post included extensive coverage of the Obama campaign in 2008, finds the idea ridiculous. "Reporters who are out on the beat don’t think about what the editorial page is doing," he says.
In modern newspapers, editorial boards and news sections are separate; editorial bias today exists primarily in the minds of the public, and not in the papers themselves. Such accusations, says Slevin, rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works, and while they are commonly heard from uninformed critics, most journalists don’t consider such accusations credible.
Public opinion has, however, caused a number of papers to reconsider their policy on endorsements. The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, has decided to discontinue their endorsements, specifically to avoid the perception of bias. Stuelpnagel finds such actions misguided. “The newspapers that are backing away from endorsing anybody because they’re afraid they’re going to offend some readers are cowardly,” he says.
The case for newspaper endorsements, as derived from the arguments of professors Slevin and Stuelpnagel, might look something like this: the role of the editorial page is to contribute to the public discourse and offer intelligent commentary and ideas about current events. By abandoning endorsements, newspapers are effectively abdicating this responsibility, and instead leaving a vacuum that may be filled by other, less reliable voices: talk radio, bloggers and the like. Even if endorsements do not materially impact the race, they keep the conversation about politics elevated and intelligent.
Though the jury is still out on whether or not endorsements have value, it looks likely that newspaper endorsements will go the same way as papers themselves. As papers become less and less widely-read, fewer people will care about whether newspapers endorse at all. This may be one of the last election cycles where endorsements are a subject of major debate, as new media – the blog, the Twitter feed and the ever-growing 24-hour news network – continue to slowly edge out newspapers. Whether you think endorsements are a good idea or not, there’s no denying that something will be different when papers finally stop issuing them. Stuelpnagel certainly thinks so.
“I personally like reading the talking points, I personally enjoy reading these endorsements," Stuelpnagel says. "And I would miss them.”