In the frenzy of news coverage leading up to an election, student journalists have to answer the question; to endorse, or not to endorse?
The practice of candidate endorsement for student government, local, state and national offices has been debated in newsrooms in recent years. Some student newsrooms see the issue in black and white: they always endorse or never do. Others make distinctions between student government positions and political campaigns.
Public universities cannot endorse candidates for political offices because they receive government funds; however, student publications, whether independent or connected to their universities, can legally endorse political candidates.
“Various courts have held that bans on [student media] endorsements are illegal,” said Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney for the Student Press Law Center. “…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 … endorsing this candidate.”
Endorsements for every office
At the University of California, Berkeley, The Daily Californian serves as both the student and the local newspaper. The independent student-run publication is the only daily paper in the city of Berkeley and has been serving the community since 1871. The paper has historically endorsed candidates for state, local and national elections.
“We see it as our duty to the public,” said The Daily Californian Editor-in-Chief Harini Shyamsundar. “I definitely do think [candidate endorsements] have an impact.”
In Shyamsundar’s three years working at The Daily Californian, the paper has always released endorsements for local and state offices.
We have a responsibility to look at everyone running for local and state offices and think critically about who is best.Harini Shyamsundar, editor-in-chief of The Daily Californian
Shyamsundar said The Daily Californian is seen as an institution in Berkeley, a city of more than 100,000 residents.
The news and opinion sections of the paper are separate, and before elections, the editorial board brings in candidates for school board, city council, and other local offices to interview them on issues important to the community.
Shyamsundar said The Daily Californian is focusing on the city’s housing crisis and growing homelessness problem when addressing midterm candidates.
“We have a responsibility to look at everyone running for local and state offices and think critically about who is best,” said Shyamsundar.
The Minnesota Daily is the independent student-run newspaper at the University of Minnesota. The paper has a staff of more than 120 students and reports on campus news and issues that affect Minneapolis and St. Paul (the state capital). More than 65 percent of the university’s student body comes from Minnesota, with many from the Twin Cities.
The Minnesota Daily endorses both student government candidates and state and local candidates. For the upcoming election, they will be focusing on the local representative race and Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District race. They will also endorse a candidate for governor.
The editorial staff of the Minnesota Daily interviews all candidates from those districts and questions them on topics that are relevant to the University of Minnesota student body. For this upcoming election, Busche said the focus is on housing policy, tuition funding from the state legislature and police and community relations.
Should students focus only on student elections?
The Eagle, the independent student-run newspaper at American University does not endorse candidates for state or local offices, but does endorse student government candidates. This is partly because of the university’s location in Washington, D.C.
A large percentage of AU students are registered to vote out of state, and Washington voters don’t have representation in certain high-profile elections like governor or a voting member of Congress.
Haley Samsel, editor-in-chief of The Eagle, said endorsing local candidates wouldn’t make much sense considering the demographics of the student body, but The Eagle has endorsed student government candidates since the 1980s.
I think it’s important for us to be able to hold these student leaders accountable.Haley Samsel, editor-in-chief of The Eagle
Samsel went on to say the paper’s endorsements for student government have historically correlated with who wins the election, but she questions if The Eagle is the cause.
“The president usually [wins] yes, because I think we usually end up endorsing the person who is usually the favorite because they are the most experienced or they are the most well-known by the student body,” Samsel said.
Is it worth it to endorse at all?
Elissa Yancey is one of the leaders of the Poynter College Media Project, a year-long program that provides learning opportunities and mentorship to independent student-run publications. She has seen the discussion of endorsements change throughout her career.
Yancey believes that candidate endorsements have become a more controversial topic over the years, with many student journalists questioning the ethics of endorsement concerning their publication’s perceived bias.
“We’re teaching [journalism students] 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,’” Yancey said. “ 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.”
We saw that our endorsements in our area served more to alienate readers than to help inform them about the electoral process.Ben Larsen, the managing editor of the Daily Nebraskan
Yancey argues that on many college campuses, students come from out of state and leave the state after graduation, so the impact those students have on their community is relatively small. When papers begin to endorse candidates, Yancey believes they fail their commitment to neutrality.
At the Daily Nebraskan,the fear of being labeled biased forced the paper to stop publishing political endorsements for student government, local and state offices in 2015.
“We just overall found that when we endorsed candidates it didn’t have the effect that we were looking for,” said Ben Larsen, the managing editor of the Daily Nebraskan and senior at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “…We kind of did an analysis and we saw that our endorsements in our area served more to alienate readers than to help inform them about the electoral process.”
Larsen said there was a trend of the whole paper being thought of as biased based on the editorial board’s endorsements and it affected readership and the ability for the paper to report on the community. This specifically affected student government elections. Larsen said the paper still sees calls of bias on Facebook and social media when other editorials or opinion pieces are posted.
The Daily Nebraskan maintains a separation between the opinion and news department and the editorial board discusses editorials in private so as not to influence news or opinions coverage. Despite this, Larsen said he doesn’t believe the media market of the University of Nebraska sees the separation or the work that goes into maintaining it.
A professional’s take
Rick Edmonds, Poynter’s media business analyst, wrote a column in October 2018 about the debate over candidate endorsements occuring at some medium-sized news organizations across the country.
In July of 2018, the editor of The Tennessean in Nashville, Michael Anastasi, wrote an editorial about the paper’s endorsement policy to offer some clarification going into the midterm elections. The editorial states that The Tennessean focuses on coverage and providing information, only endorsing candidates when they feel their opinion will “add the greatest value.”
David Plazas, editor of opinions and engagement at The Tennessean said while the paper will still endorse candidates, they are focusing on local elections where they feel their voice will add something to the conversation.
What we’ve found is people felt a lack of trust, and it diminished the value of endorsements.David Plazas, editor of opinions and engagement at The Tennessean
“Our goal is to help the public understand who the candidates are,” Plazas said. In 2015’s local elections, The Tennessean endorsed two candidates who both won, but Plazas said the goal was never to pick the winner, but to inform the public. In the 2016 presidential election, instead of endorsing candidates, The Tennessean published six columns for and against different candidates.
Plazas, who co-chairs the Opinion Journalism committee of the American Society of News Editors, said there were accusations of bias in the past when the paper offered endorsements. The Tennessean has made a more conscious effort to build trust with its readership so when they do endorse, it is seen more as an addition to an ongoing conversation than taking sides.
“What we’ve found is people felt a lack of trust, and it diminished the value of endorsements,” Plazas said. He thinks the new policy of endorsing only when it contributes to the dialogue has been a more effective strategy.
Plazas said it comes down to asking the question of “Where does the opinion matter,” when providing endorsements. He believes that endorsements are most meaningful at a local level. Plazas thinks endorsements are best when they serve to help people make good decisions without politicizing the opportunity.
Are endorsements still needed (or wanted)?
Yancey has concerns about how endorsements could cause a disconnect for audiences and supports the idea of presenting candidates and their platforms without taking sides.
“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.” Yancey said, “I’m much more a fan of presenting a candidate’s worth and all and letting others sort of find their way through that.”
She argues that it is the Minnesota Daily’s responsibility to endorse candidates because it is the only local news organization focused on the interests of students.
“The MN Daily is going to endorse candidates that are going to stand up for students. The other papers that are doing endorsements are important, and they should be looked at and understood, but they’re not considering the student voice as the prominent issue or focus of their endorsements.” Busche said, “So we are endorsing candidates to make sure that candidates are continuing to look at student issues and look to drive student issues throughout their time in office.”
Busche isn’t worried about her audience and believes they will be able to read the editorial and separate that political opinion from the news component of the paper.
“I think that knowing that our community is a well-read group definitely helps me feel a little bit easier about our endorsement process,” Busche said.
SPLC reporter Madison Dudley can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter @MadisonDudley18
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The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists.