ANALYSIS: Do newspaper endorsements sway voters' decisions?

Thursday, November 13, 2008 | 5:23 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Editorial boards at some of Missouri's largest newspapers were vocal about their selections for the state's top offices, all of which were contested this year. But in 2008, did editorial endorsements still matter and to what extent did they influence what voters did when they went to the polls?

Some studies tend to suggest that voters were  more likely to rely on their own knowledge when they cast their votes.

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press released a study that compared the effects of various types of endorsements — from political figures, celebrities and religious leaders — alongside the endorsements made by newspapers. 

The study found that endorsements by local newspapers would have a mixed impact on public opinion: 14 percent of those polled said a local newspaper endorsement would affect their vote positively and 14 percent said it would affect their vote negatively.  Sixty-nine percent of respondents said the endorsement of their local newspaper wouldn't make a difference about their vote.

But Gilbert Bailon, editorial page editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said the purpose of newspapers endorsing political candidates isn't always to change the way people vote. Instead, he said he thinks there is intellectual value in allowing newspaper readers to see the decision-making and rationale that comes along with choosing a candidate to support.

"I don't think (changing the way people vote is)  the measure of a good editorial in a democratic society," he said. "Editorials make you think, they make you analyze. But that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to vote that way."

But Tina Hervey, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party, said, this year, editorial endorsements reflect a growing bias in the media.

"I think every year, there's media bias," she said. "The Joplin Globe is in literally the most conservative city in the state, and they have never endorsed a Republican. The editorial endorsements are supposed to be a reflection of the communities that they serve."

She said, in terms of editorials, this year was strongly focused on Democrats, and this year isn't a good example of whether editorials mattered in the polling booth.

"I think it would be wiser to look at earlier years where it didn't seem to be as politically toxic for one party or not. If you look at this year, where it was clearly a Democrat year, and say the endorsements had some impact, that would be faulty in my opinion."

One of the state's top three newspapers, the Springfield News-Leader, decided this year to only make endorsements in local races. A signed letter from Don Wyatt, executive editor of the News-Leader Media Group, stated the reason was part of the paper's two-year effort to refocus on local coverage.

The paper did, however, run stories on statewide candidates that discussed their issues, and candidates were given the opportunity to write letters to a special section, discussing their qualifications for top offices. Then, Wyatt said, readers can make their own decisions.

"Our readers can sort it out," Wyatt wrote of the paper's decision to avoid statewide editorials.

The Columbia Missourian also does not make editorial endorsements.

Bailon, along with editors at some of the state's top newspapers, said editorials aren't about influencing voter behavior, they're about the process newspapers take to endorse a candidate and how they show that on the opinion page.

For newspapers, endorsement is a difficult process, more complex than drawing a candidate's name out of a hat. For Miriam Pepper, vice president of the Kansas City Star's editorial page, the process involves interviews and research.

"We review our previously published stories and the candidate statements, materials and Web sites and get together and discuss them," she said. 

The Star's editorial board is made up of nine people who also sit in on round-table interviews of many candidates for top offices. The paper runs editorial endorsements for three weeks before an election. But on the last week before the election, the paper holds off on overtly political letters or commentary.

"It's a fairness issue for the candidates, so they can have a chance to reply. They wouldn't have a chance to reply to a Monday letter," she said.

Bailon said that the St. Louis paper takes a similar approach and that debate is one of the most important parts of the process.

"It's not always that everyone's views line up," he said. "You need to weigh in on not just what you like about the person you're endorsing but also what you might not like."

From an academic perspective, writing editorials is about the mentality of a candidate.

"I think that many thoughtful voters turn to editorial endorsements to get a sense of what the candidates think," said Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. Overholser is a former MU faculty member.

"I think that hearing a viewpoint gives you a take on a candidate that is a little different than the straight news story, just the same way that people want to read opinion journalism," she said.

Overholser, who ran the editorial page at the Des Moines Register while she was editor there, said editorial endorsements play an important role in the community.

"It's part of what puts a face on newspapers," she said. "When newspapers quit endorsing, they are really abandoning an important role in the community, which is to take stands and to represent viewpoints on the editorial page, instead of just a detached news approach."

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