Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training
 
 

Candidate endorsements still provide benefits to newspapers

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The Inlander/Jan. 8, 2007

Quiz a roomful of editors and reporters on their most memorable editorials. The noteworthy ones invariably deliver messages targeted toward specific decision-makers who are in position to debate and craft public policy. In one community, the focus is a city council deliberating whether to enact an ordinance for barking dogs. In another case, a county board is debating a development which will have a significant impact on tax base. On a state legislative level, editors routinely weigh in on tax, health care, transportation and myriad other public policies.

If newspapers believe so strongly in calling government bodies to action, or criticizing them for lack of action, shouldn't they have equally strong convictions about the people who ultimately make those decisions? If newspapers tout their roles as government watchdogs, endorsing candidates for elected bodies should be at the top of editors' responsibilities.

It's unfortunate, but more and more newspapers are back-pedaling from candidate endorsements, especially in local races. Midterm elections are over, and editors should resolve now to set up a process for endorsing candidates in the next election cycle.

Make no mistake that endorsing candidates for local office-holders can be the most sensitive of tasks during the months-long election coverage. Editors routinely are put in the position of offering "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" to friends, neighbors, associates and maybe even co-workers.

At the same time, offering endorsements can be most meaningful for readers. Newspapers are in the best position to research the candidates and the issues, and then to offer informed recommendations. Here are some guidelines for endorsing candidates.

* Stick to the issues. That's especially important in local races which often become personality contests. It is naive to say that personal relationships or candidate personalities do not play a role in endorsements, but issues ought to be the foundation. Early on, have a brainstorming session to identify issues pertinent to each race which then will provide a framework for endorsements.

* Give candidates fair treatment. Endorsements are most effective when they identify the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates, and then offer a recommendation. This is important in another regard, too. Communities often lament the scarcity of candidates, and local officials are aware of the scrutiny they receive in the public forum. Newspapers should be conscious of this and do whatever is within their abilities to write constructive editorials that encourage--and not discourage --candidates for office.

* Cite specifics. A story on a city council's decision to raise sewer and water rates means more if it quantifies the impact on homeowners and businesses. The same principle is true when endorsing individuals for elective offices. Newspapers enjoy the advantage of having candidates' statements, and incumbents' votes, on the record. The best defense against criticism that a newspaper is playing "favorites" is to identify where candidates line up on the issues on which the endorsements are based.

* Share the challenges. Endorsements in local races can be sensitive and difficult due to personal relationships. Don't be afraid to share the circumstances with the individuals and readers alike. Consider the examples of a staff's former reporter running for Congress or a former advertising representative vying for county commissioner. In both cases, their opponents are endorsed on the basis of issues and credentials, though writing the endorsement probably still caused some personal anguish. The hows and whys of the endorsement can make an excellent column. The candidates still might feel a personal hurt, but they'll respect the process. Newspapers also will gain the respect of those readers who anticipated certain endorsements were a foregone conclusion.

In that regard, a column explaining editorial endorsements should be on every editor's "to do" list during every election season. It might even warrant publication a couple of times because many readers misunderstand the role of political endorsements.

Editorial endorsements represent the stance of a newspaper as an institution in its community. All types of organizations weigh in on which candidates will best represent their interests. Candidates, in turn, regularly solicit and publicize their endorsements. In that vein, newspapers should not take a back seat.

The true calling of newspapers is to share their knowledge and perspective on candidates and issues for the betterment of community.

Newspapers that shy away from endorsements not only are shirking a basic responsibility but also are shortchanging the discussion of ideas that is critical to healthy communities.


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