October 28, 2004

Endorsement Media Blip

Because of the piece I did for American Journalism Review on the impact of newspaper endorsements ("What's the Point?", Oct-Nov. 2004), I've done a few interviews recently, filling the role of expert for reporters in search of one.

Here's a story done by BBC reporter Kevin Anderson on whether Kerry's lead in newspaper endorsements will translate into advantage at the polls next Tuesday. It states that I believe "in a time where readers are looking for any hint of bias, that endorsements might have outlasted their usefulness."

More accurately, I would say the endorsement process -- not necessarily the endorsement itself -- is outmoded. The top-done, black box recommendation issued by an often anonymous editorial board does indeed reinforce impressions of bias (in either direction), but, even worse, it fails to engage or involve readers in the process of arriving at the decisions. In other words, it excludes readers rather than engages them -- the exact opposite of what newspapers need to do in order to strengthen their connections to the community.

More transparency is need, not less. Why not open up the endorsement process, perhaps even hold interviews by the editorial board (who are they? what is their background? their previous endorsement votes?) in public in a town hall setting? Why not include members of the community on the editorial board?

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to be interview by Doug Fabrizio of KUER radio, an NPR station, in Salt Lake. I also had the misfortune to be paired with Jay Rosen, who is articulate enough to speak in complete chapters, thereby rendering others in the same conversation to appear as fumble-tongued as our current president on a bad day. An MP3 of the show is here.

Among Jay's comments:

* Endorsements that seem to arrive from on high -- as he put it, from Mount Olympus -- can alienate readers and cause a shift in perception of the newspaper from "our newspaper" to "the newspaper." The first is an institutional relative who may be forgiven for its occasional wrong-headed opinion; the latter is a faceless entity who muscles into the civic conversation with with a braying opinion on the right thing to do.

(An example: The Salt Lake City Tribune has begun endorsing candidates for the first time in decades, a change that followed purchase of the paper by Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group Inc. The paper's endorsement of George Bush produced a flash flood of letters from readers, so much that the Connie Coyne, the paper's reader advocate, responded to the renewal of endorsments after a 30-year hiatus with a defensive column citing the First Amendment and the paper scrapped its syndicated op-ed columns for a day to run more mail from readers. Nowhere in the paper was there an attempt to connect with readers by explaining the endorsement process or identifying the editorial board. A good question to ask is this: Why didn't the Tribune toss out the canned ramblings of the syndicated columnists weeks before its endorsement and open the space to readers so they could debate who the paper should endorse?)

* Newspapers tend to write endorsements with the politicians in mind rather than the community, placing more weight on the records or policies of the candidates than on the needs of the particular community. This type of pressthink (to borrow Jay's term) derives from the mindset that the processes of journalism -- or of newspapering -- have value in and of themselves, meaning editors and reporters can see themselves as doing public good by performing the journalistic rituals without regard for the eventual purpose, quality or impact of those actions.

Posted by Tim Porter at October 28, 2004 12:05 PM