October 2018: Should student media endorse political candidates?

Flickr / Darron Birgenheier (CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Madison Dudley

Madison Dudley: The 2018 midterm elections are November 6 and student media organizations across the country are contemplating whether or not to endorse political candidates.

Opinions are split. Some publications don’t want to persuade the votes of their audience or be seen as biased because of endorsements. Some argue that the 2016 presidential election showed candidate endorsements don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Some make a distinction between endorsing student government candidates and local politicians. Others see endorsements as a vital community service.

My name is Madison Dudley and I’m a reporter at The Student Press Law Center. I’m going to walk you through the legality, ethics and challenges of student media endorsements

First things first. It is legal for student journalists to endorse candidates for public office even if they are tied to their public or private institution. Here’s SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean:

Sommer Ingram Dean: Most states do have some sort of law in the books that says that government officials or government employees can’t use state resources to promote their own agenda which would presumably include… student journalism, student media programs. But student journalists are not government employees so they are not subject to those sorts of rules.

MD: Dean says courts around the country have been protective of the First Amendment rights of college editors, and that includes protecting the right to publish political editorial endorsements.

SID: Various courts have held that bans on these endorsements are illegal. So I guess the reason behind that would be that these students are the ones that obtain editorial control over these publications and so they are not acting as any sort of arm as the university itself. So that’s why it’s not considered the university itself, is endorsing this candidate.

MD: Would that be different if it was a private university that had control and that funded the student newspaper?

SID: I think it would be because first of all private universities aren’t bound by the First Amendment because they are not state actors. So at private universities, it’s often a very different story because they do and can maintain more control of the editorial exercises of the student publications.

Legally for public universities, there is no problem with endorsing these candidates but ethically I think some people have questions about the propriety of that. At professional newspapers, the editorial department is totally separate from the news department so you would think that the problem of bias doesn’t really exist.

MD: Haley Samsel is editor in chief of The Eagle, the independent student-run newspaper at American University in Washington, D.C.. The Eagle endorses candidates for student government every March and has been doing so since the1980s, Samsel said.

Haley Samsel:  A few of our editors were kind of saying that they always thought it was weird that we were going to weigh in on these people and also cover the election because then in the eyes of those candidates that we don’t support or that we do support, we are now biased or we have a view just because this newspaper has put out this endorsement and now our reporter has to talk to them and act impartially.

So it does bring up an ethical question of can we separate these two and even if we can as a staff, maybe the public doesn’t understand that distinction or the candidates don’t understand that distinction. So it brings up a lot of questions for us.

MD: Elissa Yancey is an affiliate member of The Poynter Institute, is co-leader of Poynter’s lCollege Media Project. She’s a journalist and taught at University of Cincinnati

EY: Another issue that I have heard students and college media advisers talk about is their hesitancy on the part of student media editors to be political in their editorials based on some pushback from administrators on campus … In so many cases, college administrators and colleges in general that take cutbacks in federal funding are very wary to ignite passion on the sides of political divides and they don’t want to make their donors upset.

MD: What about looking at student papers that are independent of their university — are students more willing to endorse candidates when they are not reliant on the university for funding?

EY: Actually even indie student media gets pushback from their administrators. They may not be dependent on them for funding and operations but they are dependent on them for resources for coverage in their everyday work so I think there is pressure on student journalists to be very careful on the stances they chose to take and they don’t choose to take.

EY: I think this merges into what my personal opinion is as a long-time journalist and journalism educator. It’s kind of a challenge for students in college media to make this connection; we’re teaching them and telling them that it’s important to be transparent and open about their process and not to take sides when it comes to coverage and then when it comes to editorials all of a sudden its like ‘you can take sides.’ I think they see that disconnect, as I have in my career as a journalist, where when we talk about not being biased, being neutral in our coverage and then newspapers are coming out and endorsing a candidate. Even though its a distinction between an editorial endorsement and a staff endorsement I think that that’s a really fine line that most of the college doesn’t understand and I think that student journalists really grapple with that as well.

MD: This is exactly the case for The Daily Nebraskan at the University of Nebraska, LIncoln. Ben Larsen, managing editor of The Daily Nebraskan said the paper – now  a monthly magazine – published editorial endorsements until 2015. They no longer do..

Ben Larsen: We just overall found that when we endorsed candidates it didn’t have the effect that we were looking for. That what we thought was, we kind of did was a cross benefit analysis and we saw that our endorsements in our area served more to alienate readers than to help inform them about the electoral process. So that’s the reason why we ended up doing away with political endorsements.

MD: Larsen personally believes in the power of endorsements but said they’re not a good fit for every newsroom, media market and readership.

BL: The Daily Nebraskan standard for not endorsing candidates isn’t necessarily the sterling standard. We don’t necessarily expect every school newspaper to adopt a policy of not endorsing candidates. It’s just what we found to be the best policy to take in our specific media market. But I like to have hope in democracy and I hope that newspaper endorsements have an effect.

Unfortunately here, though it doesn’t look like that is the case and especially in this type of partisan era, it’s hard to make those kinds of endorsements without permanently alienating part of your readership.

MD: Part of why The Eagle only endorses student government candidates, not state or local candidates is because many of the students at American aren’t registered to vote in the District of Columbia.

HS: It’s also a matter of do these candidates really care about coming to The Eagle office and being interviewed by a bunch of college students who probably aren’t going to be voting in this district or in their election, to talk to them about issues that affect them. There might be a couple candidates who are interested in that specifically who work in our area of D.C., but I’m not sure that we could get every single candidate or even a majority of candidates to do that.

MD: But going to back to student government endorsements…

HS: I think we kind of end up doing this every year because it’s just the way things have been done, you know? I came to The Eagle and this is what happened every March. We have this forum, we talk to the candidates and we endorse and in the past few years you know seeing how newspaper endorsements kind of did not matter in the 2016 election. It did not have an effect or much effect at least, I am wondering if there is that much value in endorsing candidates.

But I think there is a value at AU. I’m still defensive of it because I think the student government candidates, it’s hard for any organization to get all of them into the room and The Eagle at least has this role and this power to say hey please come to our forum and we will consider you and they do come they feel compelled to come because of the history of th e endorsement, so I think we represent the student body in that way.

MD: However the Daily Nebraskan does not yield on its endorsement policy, not even for student elections.

BL: So our policy for that is pretty clear cut and our policy for that being that ASUN elections that we have, which are in the spring are our largest opportunity to grant news to the UNL community and we did also, like we did with state and local and national as well. We did endorse ASUN candidates and parties in the past (2015),  but we decided against that because again, ASUN is the most important thing that we cover every year, and we have had concerns in the past about our impartiality regarding that because either one of our writers endorsed a candidate or because someone on the editorial board endorsed a party.

MD: Larsen said people call the Daily Nebraskan biased every day on the Twitter and Facebook pages for The Daily Nebraskan every day in connection to opinion articles and columns. If their impartiality is being questioned over one person’s opinion, he believes the readership of The Daily Nebraskan would rapidly decline if endorsements were brought back.

MD: Other student publications, like the Minnesota Daily, regularly endorse local and state candidates in addition to student government.

The student paper has a staff of more than 120 and functions fully independently from the University of Minnesota. Editor-in-Chief Kelly Busche said the Minnesota Daily has a long history of endorsing student government, local and state candidates. She says the paper has a responsibility to its student community, which is largely local.

The University of Minnesota’s 2017 enrollment statistics show that of the 31,535 undergraduate students on the Twin Cities campus, more than 65 percent are from the state of Minnesota, and more than half from the metro area alone.  

When endorsing student government, state and local candidates, Busche said the Minnesota Daily chooses to endorse candidates that will best represent the concerns of students.

Kelly Busche: We will be meeting with the candidates, the front-running candidates for these [midterm] races and we have a list of priorities that we would like each candidate to speak to.

KB: Were going to be asking about student hous[ing]. So a lot of students at the U of M live off campus so we will be asking about housing policy, where they want to take their housing policy. We will also be asking about tuition and funding from the state legislature because of course funding from the state legislature impacts tuition, so it’s kind of seeing where they fall on the spectrum of funding the university. And then we will also be asking them about police and community relations.

MD: Busche points out that it’s important to endorse candidates because while other state and local papers will have their say, the Minnesota Daily is the only publication that represents the students and their interests.

KB: I think that many people are, at least in the university community, they understand that there is a division between the columns and opinion and editorial side of the paper and the newsroom side of a paper. So they know that there is no influence and they approach the endorsements knowing that it is a political endorsement and that it is not a final say. I think that knowing that our community is a well-read group definitely helps me feel a little bit easier about our endorsement process.

MD: Here’s Yancey again:

EY: You know there are many schools around the country where there is a lot of local students and in their cases, it makes perfect sense for the student newspaper to take more of an active role in local issues.

I just find it really challenging for journalism in general, not just at the collegiate level, to maintain an air of ‘you should trust us because we are open to all different points of view’ but turning around and saying ‘but a select few of the people who work here are going to be able to make a recommendation to you about who you should vote for’ I’m much more a fan of presenting a candidates worth and all and letting others sort of find their way through that.

MD: Scott Gillespie is the editorial pages editor for the Star Tribune. On Oct. 21, Gillespie authored an editorial titled “How and why we endorse candidates” which explained how news editors and reporters are not involved in the paper’s endorsement process. It also touched on how the goal is not to tell you how to vote but offer a well thought out opinion for you to consider.

Scott Gillespie: We feel like, 365 days a year we are offering opinions on a wide variety of things and that when it comes to election time, we should offer our opinion on elections too. An informed opinion that we spend time researching, we spend time reporting and we spend time talk to the candidates. And I’m hopeful and the editorial board is hopeful that when we do that well that it just gives voters one more tool for them to use as they make up their own minds as to who they should vote for.

MD: Gillespie said accusations of bias come up every election, and he hasn’t seen an increase  this election cycle. The purpose of endorsing candidates is not to chose the winner, Gillespie said, but to provide a public service.

SG: I don’t presume that people are gonna take the editorial endorsements that the Star Tribune Editorial board makes and vote based on those. If they do, if they want to that’s fine. But I think voting is a really personal decision and I can’t tell Joe or Jane Voter what are the most important issues in their life.

We think its a public service to say who we think the top candidates are and then to give a reason why and if people take that great, if they decide to reject it, that’s fine too.

MD: Thanks for listening to  the Student Press Law Center podcast, produced here in Washington D.C. The music played was called “On My Way” by Kevin MacLeod. You can learn more about the topics discussed in this podcast on our website, splc.org. You can also find news stories about student press rights,, advice, legal resources, and quizzes. For legal help, visit splc.org/legalhelp. Follow us on Twitter @SPLC, Instagram @studentpresslawcenter and be sure to like our Facebook page. You can follow me on Twitter @MadisonDudley18.

SPLC reporter Madison Dudley can be reached at mdudley@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @MadisonDudley18

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.