Endorsement of politicians is common practice in the American press
*By Gregory P. Perreault and Volha Kananovich
Supporting politicians has a long history in American newspapers. Until the 20th century they were usually explicitly aligned with a political party or group. Traditionally, support is under the purview of the owner of a newspaper or its editorial board. Journalists may know that deciding which candidate to support differs from executing the story, but many readers don’t separate the 2.
As recently discovered in a study published in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, many journalists have come to view editorial endorsements as a liability. In 2020, Nieman Lab spoke to 64 political journalists with affiliations ranging from exclusively digital news outlets to national magazines and local and national newspapers. Most journalists interviewed did not question their newsrooms’ ability to maintain the metaphorical wall between the editorial and reporting sides, with one reporter referring to this as “a very strict firewall”.
However, they also felt the need to explain to readers the divide between a newspaper’s editorial board support and the newspaper’s other journalists. Some reporters said sources asked why they supported the other candidate. Journalists found themselves clarifying that they had not supported anyone — their editorial board had. As one journalist said: “Nobody knows the distinction between the editorial board and reporters, and it’s our fault for not telling them. Every 4 years we shoot ourselves in the foot”. Another noted: “Political parties like to criticize some news companies, leading viewers to believe that a news company is biased.”. The supports, he added, “can exacerbate these preconceived notions”.
Most journalists in the study found the practice of political support somewhat archaic. Of the journalists interviewed, 8 defended support, but even in these cases it was conditional – for example, one journalist argued that the practice should only exist at the community level. Even supporters of the idea of endorsements felt that the practice exacerbated the already arduous work of political journalism, complicated by growing political polarization and public distrust.
“Readers pay little attention to this distinction between opinion and non-opinion.”, a journalist told us. “Contributes to the public’s view that publications have an agenda.”
Notably, in delimiting the separation between the editorial board and the Newsroom, journalists did so not only metaphorically – evoking the image of a wall separating the 2 – but also grammatically, through the pronouns they used to explain the practices of their Newsroom to us. . Journalists who worked in newsrooms that offered support used the term “they” to denote the editorial board and emphasize its own separation from the endorsement process. In contrast, when journalists were in newsrooms that did not offer endorsements, they often used the term “we” to describe the practice, for example, “we don’t do that”. A rhetorical move signaling that they have embraced and internalized this position. One journalist said that they actually left their newsroom because it published editorial endorsements.
In addition to issues of public welfare and concern, journalists interviewed also indicated that endorsements are not particularly effective. In the words of one journalist, endorsements are likely “affect the public’s perception of newspapers more than the perception of candidates”.
Some newspapers have already changed their policies. In the run-up to the 2020 US election, McClatchy announced that his group’s newspapers would not endorse presidential candidates unless they interviewed the 2 candidates individually. O Dallas Morning News made a similar decision not to support either candidate in 2020 after receiving a backlash in 2016.
The journalists we interviewed found editorial support most valuable in local races. The types of relationships that local newspapers cultivate with readers, they said, are different from relationships with national newspapers. Local newspapers also enjoy higher levels of trust with readers than national newspapers. This can make the public more likely to perceive editorial endorsements as an example of newspapers delivering on their promise to inform the public rather than as examples of media bias.
In contrast to state and federal contests, journalists argued that in local elections such as city council or mayoral elections, candidates often run as nonpartisan candidates, which can make the public less likely to view editorial endorsements through a lens. partisan. Some have indicated that local elections – which are often overshadowed by news coverage of national races – often lack robust information about candidates. This, again, could justify newspapers’ decisions to issue editorial endorsements as part of their service to the public.
But based on the research, it’s worth considering whether media endorsement is a tradition that continues to serve the public.
“The public can’t tell the difference” said a journalist. “When they hear that The New York Times editorial endorsed Elizabeth Warren, for example, it falls on the journalist”.
This text was translated by Luísa Guimarães. Read the original in English.
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