By NATHAN FULK
It has long been tradition that newspapers, on a local, state and national level, endorse political candidates as part of election coverage. Though positioned in the opinion section, many argue that such a practice endangers journalistic objectivity. In officially endorsing one particular candidate, newspapers make a decision better left to the public, a group of citizens with which the media should share a particular trust. This trust does not end with the public’s trust that a newspaper should be objective, but continues in that a paper should trust their readers to make their own decisions.
Modern media’s influences on journalism in the last 20 years have been a mixed bunch. While the internet has bred the multivocality of blogs and online newspapers, television news has become more opinion than “hard news.” In fact, the bias of certain networks has been so much that the White House has officially acknowledged their antagonism; President Obama declared Fox News an unofficial arm of the Republican Party. In a culture so inundated with opinion, readers should expect that newspapers, of all media venues, would not tell them what to do. This is not an attack on editorials, but elections are the bread and butter of democracy. This is a decision too important to not leave to the masses.
Furthermore, people are too inclined to trust newspapers. Any reasonable person would conclude that the people who write the news know more about the news than them. Newspapers have influence outside their own readership, surely. Something such as the New York Times’ endorsement of Barack Obama was reported all over; for instance, it was covered by the Huffington Post. Some people might feel, even subconsciously, that they do have enough factual information about each political candidate, and therefore trust that a famous newspaper like the NY Times knows better than they.
The newspapers should then endeavor to make it easier for people to trust themselves. The same technology can make it easy and appealing to inform people with the same set of facts that the editorial board uses to decide their endorsement. For example, a newspaper could set up an online round table discussion with any number of the candidates. Questions could come from the editorial board, or from online submissions. It has been tried before, during the 2008 election at the CNN YouTube debate. True, one cannot put a video in a newspaper, but a small note would suffice to direct readers to all-too-prevalent internet access. Summaries could be printed on more important elections in a Sunday section.
Video, of course, is impractical to shoot for every election, and for very candidate. Many see this as a justification for an abbreviated editorial explaining the newspapers endorsement. The page space for such a thing could be used for a simple table, explaining each and every candidate’s position on prevalent issues. Newspaper coverage should be doing more to increase the exposure of third party candidates. Though evaluation may be objective, endorsements tend to be a dichromatic rainbow. If someone wants to make an endorsement, it should be published clearly as a letter. An individual person holds less weight than the mythological entity of the newspaper.
In fact, issues could be tackled by the editorial board, come election time, with more emphasis on each candidate’s position. Then, a newspaper could disagree with any candidate, on any issue, without making a value decision on their bid for office. This would also place the issues in better political context. Though people understood that Obama criticized the health care system, not many knew what he planned to do to fix it. This would have given him an opportunity to dissolve all ambiguity, and silence those who would complain that he was not being clear.
Newspaper endorsements hold the election before it actually happens. Newspapers, more than a publication, are a symbol of the free press. Such decision making does not have to be biased to engender the idea that a newspaper knows more than the public about who to vote for. They may feel that way, but elections are held because we expect the public to make up their own minds.