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Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Not all newspaper endorsements are created equally (and some are actually useful)

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Once the leading response to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the three-word phrase for generations has sent shivers up the spines of hard-boiled newspaper reporters as a retort to the editorial board’s political endorsements.

Try as they might to remind readers that the newsroom is separate from the people who control the opinion pages, many readers refuse to accept that distinction. After all, the editor is involved in the editorial process, and the editor assigns stories to reporters, right? The smaller the newsroom, the blurrier the lines, and newsrooms aren’t exactly on a growth trajectory these days.

Frankly, we all should’ve stopped trying after the Wall Street Journal told readers in 1928 to vote for Herbert Hoover, “as the soundest proposition for those with a financial stake in the country.” Nailed it!

Fortunately, not all endorsements are created equally. The good ones are – regrettably for a “newsrooms are separate” crusader – thoroughly reported. They examine the strengths and weaknesses of a specific candidate or issue and show readers the building blocks that went into making the recommendation.

A good endorsement isn’t based on candidate talking points or advertisements but relies on direct interviews with the relevant players (ideally with raw footage made available) and, as much as possible, incorporates a track record of voting or stated positions. Further, the newspaper must be transparent about its evaluation criteria: What does it think readers want in a mayor, senator or president? Is the editorial board dictating what constituents should prefer, or is it trying to determine which position or politician most aligns with the electorate?

Clearly, no editorial board can speak for its entire readership, but with a thorough explanation of the issues and benchmarks, even a reader who rejects the final assessment can learn something useful en route to the ballot box, or at the very least, be spurred to further research.

If you’re reading an endorsement without this kind of depth, be wary. Does the write-up examine only one side or candidate? Does it unreasonably project future actions onto someone with no track record? Is there no indication the writers met with those being rated?

Don’t ignore the big picture, either. Even thoughtful individual endorsements can be useful. Did the board back only incumbents across the board because it resists change? Or did it ultimately endorse based on party alignment? Is that continuing a long-established trend?

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for anything. If an endorsement makes you mad, at least you read the darn thing. It’s also an indication you care about the government, so thanks for that. Make up your own mind about voting, but please just take in as much quality information as possible. 

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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