Presidential endorsements by US newspapers: Why it is intrinsic to American politics, journalism and its impact on voters

The recent controversy around New York Times' Editorial Board endorsing two nominees against Donald Trump in the upcoming US presidential elections was criticised for more than one reason. While the board's choice of endorsement for the two candidates — Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar from the party's moderate wing and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren from the progressive wing — was questioned, many also critiqued the publication's changed approach to presidential endorsements this year.

The newspaper changed its approach to presidential endorsements this year, airing footage of candidate interviews and details about the endorsement process on a special edition of The Weekly, the FX network series about The Times.

Quoting a 2018 report on Indicators of News Media Trust, NBC News in an oped, noted that given the very little trust that readers have in media (all over the world), it is probably wise to "sit out" endorsements. "The media has a credibility problem, and that’s what’s truly threatening the very underpinnings of our democracy", the oped noted.

However, it is important to understand why are presidential endorsement so intrinsic to US politics and its journalism.

Why newspapers endorse candidates

Explaining why and how the editorial board picks endorsements, deputy editorial page editor of The New York Times Kathleen Kingsbury said, "Endorsements are supposed to assess candidates’ platforms and pledges and offer readers in-depth guidance so they can make up their minds on whom to vote for in an educated way." Kingsbury, however, also asserted that it is still not "entirely clear — or consistent" how these endorsements influence the elections.

This practice of endorsing candidates is not new to American newspapers, The New York Times, for example, has been endorsing presidential candidates since 1860. Newspaper endorsements are specific statements of support for a political candidate. This candidate could be seeking the presidency or any number of local political offices. This process of endorsing candidates has been a topic of debate for a long time. While critiques of the process say that it's not a newspaper's job to partake in "bitter partisan election", others argue that editorial endorsement explains to the world "what that publication is, what it advocates, how it thinks, what principles it holds dear."

This brings us to the next point of order.

Newspapers endorsing candidates is editorial opinion

Every publication has a ethos that they follow, the presidential endorsements reflect that very ethos. In 2016, The Arizona Republic endorsed a Democrat candidate (Hillary Clinton) for the first time in the paper's history. The endorsement exceeded a million views online, making it the paper's most-read post in two years, and drew coverage from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and dozens of other national media, plus outlets in England, Ireland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Japan, some of which sent camera crews.

Lamenting over the fact that there is "media illiteracy" even among the readers who cannot distinguish between opinion and news section, head of The Arizona Republic Phil Boas in 2017 said, "Editors told me they’ve spent their careers explaining to readers the very simple difference between news and opinion sections….This type of media illiteracy, however, has as much to do with reader ignorance as with newspapers’ profound inconsistencies."

Before the 2012 elections, the then editorial page editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel David Haynes told NPR that endorsements end up undermining "this whole idea of independence, and it really undermines this idea of being an honest broker of opinion."

Arguing against, editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times Robert Greene said that "opinion is part of the process." According to Greene, newspapers cannot suddenly cease being part of a conversation with their readers."We weigh in all the time during the year on what the president is doing, what the alternative theories are about governing. We ought to work through that with our readers and tell them where we come out."

Endorsements facilitate dialogue

Worldwide, media has been scathingly criticised for having a voice — always. Opinions are subjective, but opinionated media is also not the "trustworthy" media, especially in this environment of overwhelming social media and unchecked fake news. That being said, every newspaper has a quintessence tenor, which ends up becoming the voice of the paper which interacts with its readers. Chicago Tribune Editorial Page Editor John McCormick says it is part of a newspaper's duty to facilitate dialogue within a community. Many editors in the US have argued saying not endorsing a candidate is essentially "abandoning an essential community service because blowback might hurt business, or because papers have slashed the staffs needed for the imposing work that goes into endorsing."

Its impact... or lack thereof

What is the impact of endorsements on voters in the US — no one has a clear idea. According to a 2008 study done by the Pew Research Center, almost seven in 10 Americans said their local newspaper's endorsement had no impact on who they cast their ballot for and with the over-saturation of social media and polarised media activity, people are probably placing less trust in the mainstream media.

In the 2016 election, of the 100 newspapers with the largest circulation, 57 endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton while 26 chose not to pick a candidate. As per a report in Politico, only a handful of newspapers picked then Republican candidate Donald Trump, who went on to win a decisive victory.

However, despite that misfire, editors have still maintained that endorsements by leading newspapers are crucial "at a time when there are so many voices" and "we need to speak up and do our civic responsibility to not be over-shouted".

That being said, there is still no concrete way of asserting that endorsements work the way newspapers expect them to. Readers will be wary of the newspaper's "bias". However, a study done in February 2016 by economists Agustin Casas, Yarine Fawaz and Andre Trindade found that endorsements did improve a candidate's odds of winning, particularly if they were consistent with the newspaper's style and rhetoric, but still come as a surprise to the publication's endorsement history.

Citing example from the study, BBC in 2016 reported, "...The Chicago Tribune endorsing Obama in 2008 and 2012. While the newspaper's editorial board is historically conservative, the tone of the paper tends to be more moderate. In backing Obama, the publication remained consistent with its style and language, but made a surprise endorsement by declining to back its typical Republican choice."

BBC quoted political science experts who corroborated that crossover endorsements had an overall effect of convincing 1 to 2 percent of readers to shift positions in those elections. The experts said that unusual endorsements sometimes have "a big influence on the narrow slice of voters who have yet to make up their mind."

Experts also noted that endorsements matter the most to the voters "at the margins". "There are so many undecided voters in this race fishing around for some kind of guidance for what to do," a political science expert from Ohia State University was quoted as saying by BBC.

According to Kingsbury, the US presidential election of 2020 is "beginning in the shadow of voter suppression, election hacking, disinformation campaigns and a presidential impeachment." According to her, endorsements in such political climate "is an opportunity to ask hard questions and engage candidates in the kind of prolonged back-and-forth that reveals insights readers aren’t always privy to but have a right to know about."

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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2020 19:50:11 IST