With the 2020 election fewer than 50 days away, it’s an apt time to re-examine the role of a crucial part in the election cycle: newspaper endorsements.
If you’ve taken a look at your local paper’s opinion section, you might notice some endorsements for candidates or propositions by the editorial board. This election cycle has certainly had some unique endorsements, with The New York Times endorsing two candidates in the Democratic presidential primary and while not technically a newspaper, Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden for president just this week for the first and so far only time in its nearly two-century history. Both endorsements were subject to a not insignificant amount of criticism for their gimmickiness.
Meanwhile on the state level, newspaper endorsements for the 12 propositions on the California ballot have been used for political ammunition.
The No on Prop 21 campaign has flouted their popularity among editorial boards, tweeting out on Monday, “Proposition 21 is opposed by 16 daily newspapers in CA — more than any other ballot measure … Join them.”
To take another example, the No on Prop 24 campaign and Yes on 22 campaign also made a point out of their endorsements from local outlets like The Orange County Register and the San Francisco Chronicle, respectively.
These endorsements, separate from the objectivity of the papers’ newsrooms, are intended to reflect not only the values of an editorial board, but also the values of the community the paper represents.
However, it’s difficult to gauge whether or not these endorsements are impacting election results by influencing readers, or if the popular opinion and polling of the community a paper represents influences how those on an editorial board endorse a measure or proposition. After all, members on the board are still members of the community with a wide variety of opinions; they aren’t expected to be detached in an endorsement.
These opinions are based in fact, obviously, and journalistic ethics still apply, but it’s not like the environment someone grows up in has no impact on what they think about a particular issue.
If we flashback to 2018, the L.A. Times, the largest newspaper by circulation in California and one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S., had a roughly 91% success rate with their endorsements of that November’s propositions. That sounds impactful, but there's no evidence that the endorsements caused the results. In fact, as newspapers downward trend of losing subscriptions, and are hit especially hard after the COVID-19 economic crash, it's likely that fewer and fewer people will be reading their paper to hear what they have to say about a particular issue.
However, the real problem of these endorsements isn’t that they may or may not be effective or that they are reaching a sadly shrinking number of people; the real problem is with us, the readers.
In the era of fake news, readers often have trouble telling the difference between hard news written by objective journalists and op-ed pieces written by columnists. Imagine how difficult it would be for someone to distinguish an editorial board endorsement from the main function of a newspaper, delivering a clear view of the world. Endorsements give the appearance of a paper that isn’t atuned to the community but instead solely a political marker.
“Taking sides delegitimizes these outlets' hard news in the eyes of a lot of voters,” U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report Dave Wasserman tweeted out Tuesday, “and [it] helps Trump's case that their stories are biased or ‘fake.’”
Even if the issue is local, the appearance of putting a thumb on the scale from a more homely source can politicize the less political.
I’m not saying opinion pages should lay off taking a stance on political issues; columnists need to point out when they see something wrong in a bill or proposition independent of the board. However, editorial boards should step away from explicit endorsements of propositions and candidates and instead focus on giving back to the community by highlighting more general concepts in line with the mission of the board without necessarily taking a stance on a ballot issue. That responsibility belongs to the voters.
This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a junior environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.