Nov 9, 2007

More newspapers and readers voting "no" on candidate endorsements

Do you vote the way your local newspaper tells you? More and more, the answer is no.

Many newspapers are no longer endorsing political candidates, and experts say the public is also placing less stock in endorsements.

Many experts say the charges of political bias that newspapers face when they make an endorsement are not worth the effort. Further, a 2004 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on endorsements from 1940 to 2002 concluded that an endorsement has very little effect on the outcome of an election.

“I think serious people read what a newspaper has to say about a candidate, but they don’t want to a newspaper telling them how to vote,” said John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University. Hartman is the author of two books about USA Today, which has the largest circulation in the nation but does not endorse candidates.

“Some newspapers have stopped endorsing because it makes readers angry,” he said. “If they get angry at a news source they often just stop subscribing. It’s a business decision not to endorse.”

Phil Jerome -- who recently retired as the executive editor of Hometown Newspapers that once published community newspapers in Livingston County, South Lyon, Milford, Novi and Northville before being purchased by Gannett – said the advance of the Internet and other news sources has also diluted the effectiveness of newspaper endorsements.

“I don’t think they make as much difference as they used to,” he said. “It might have a lot to do with the advent of electronic media.”

The electronic media may actually make for a less-informed electorate. For example, 30-second ads – often attack ads – are taking the place of news analysis. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN) - a nonpartisan, nonprofit coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about the influence of money in politics and the need for campaign finance reform in Michigan - in the last general election in November 2006, political coverage averaged 1.46 minutes of airtime during a 30-minute newscast in the Lansing TV market. Prior to November, the average fell to a mere 27 seconds of political stories during a newscast. It was even worse in the Detroit market, with the average in October and leading up to the November election 1.23 minutes of airtime, compared to 22 seconds in September. But political advertising in the Detroit market during the fall of 2006 averaged 4.21 minutes per newscast for an average of about nine political ads. In fact, political ads, as well as weather and sports coverage, took up more than half of newscasts at 6 and 11 p.m.

Many people feel the drop in circulation for daily newspapers can be blamed directly on people getting their news instantly from TV, radio and the Internet. At the same time, community newspapers, which offer local news, are thriving. Similarly, many political experts say newspaper endorsements carry less weight the more visible and higher the office but more weight for local races.

“I think the more local the endorsement the more difference it makes,” said James Wojcik, a professor of journalism at CMU and a member of the CMU Journalism Hall of Fame. “If there is a hot local issue, newspapers will have more of an impact.”

The reputation for fairness and accuracy of the newspaper may also have an effect on how the endorsement is perceived. Dan Rock, campaign manager for the successful 2006 state House campaign of Kathy Angerer, D-Dundee, said the endorsement of the employee-owned Monroe Evening News was very important.

“Getting the endorsement was like an authority figure saying it’s OK to vote for this person,” he said. “Just the name recognition -- it gives is a big help.”

Often the circulation of the newspaper determines how the endorsement is made and who makes it. On a large metropolitan newspaper, the editorial page editor and the editorial writers may make the decision; on some smaller newspapers, various editors and the reporter who covers the candidate or race may make the decision. And some newspapers may have citizens on the editorial board.

Jerome has sat in on countless endorsement interviews, and he said editors use face-to-face interviews, questionnaires and public statements to reach a decision. “You are looking for knowledge on the issues,” he said. “You are also looking for quality and where they stand on the issues.”

Citizens may assume that a newspaper is making an informed decision when it makes an endorsement. But when five of the six members of the editorial board of the Lansing State Journal voted to endorse Jim Marcinkowski for the U.S. House in the 8th District over incumbent Mike Rogers, R-Brighton, publisher Leslie Hurst opted to quash the editorial and endorse nobody it shook some of that confidence..

Jerome still thinks newspapers can play a viable role in the election process, but it will be in local races where the only information that readers get on a candidate is from the local paper.

“The local newspapers have more of an opportunity to make more of a difference,” he said. “They [readers] all know pretty much already who they are going to vote for in the national and statewide elections.”

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