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Do newspaper presidential endorsements matter anymore?
Lots of newspapers endorse candidates, but why? Does it actually help?
- Lots of newspapers endorse presidential candidates, but the practice has been questioned in recent years.
- Perceived bias is a big part of the recent decline of trust in media.
- One study found endorsements can change people's minds, but only under certain circumstances.
Endorsements are an often-contentious part of the increasingly endless American election cycle. Most significant organizations of every kind give them out; including unions, business groups, civic groups, political action groups, and, of course, newspapers.
While it seems evident that the first few groups would be interested in endorsing candidates, it's less clear why newspapers would.
Why do newspapers make endorsements at all?
Consider it; it's kind of weird that newspapers endorse candidates at all. The rest of the time they report the news and maybe print a few opinion pieces, all the time claiming objectivity and neutrality. Then, every few years, they take up at least a full page to explain why they think you should vote for a particular person. Why does anybody do it?
If you ask a dozen editors that question, you'll likely get a dozen different answers.
Robert Greene of the Los Angeles Times told NPR that endorsements could serve as a statement of transparency and as a capstone to editorials on the various policy issues given before that point:
"Well, I think expressing your opinion is in some way an expression or a demonstration of transparency. The idea that on the editorial page is that after writing editorials about particular issues as they arrive and about candidates as they arise, that you don't also come to a conclusion about if you were going to vote which one you would vote for. I think it's a little disingenuous to say that you haven't reached that opinion. And if you've reached such an opinion, just in the interests of transparency, I think it's a good idea to express it and then to put it in front of the readers and see if they believe that you have justified that opinion properly."
Jeff Cohen of the Houston Chronicle suggested that endorsements are a vital part of the debate:
"We endorse candidates because most contemporary newspapers feel it is part of our public service mission even if some readers disagree with our point of view. We believe it is paramount for the community and electorate to be engaged and strongly advocate for participation. We think that editorial endorsements help provoke higher thought and cognition and is a motivation to partake in democracy."
Chuck Plunkett of the Denver Post appealed to history when justifying endorsements:
"The idea of that tradition that if you're going to go to the trouble to have a printing press and a newsroom and put your message out and try to cover public policy, then you also have the right as the owner of that paper to express your opinion. That's how an editorial page got started to begin with, in trying to make arguments that would be good for society. The reason we do endorsements is because we're trying to help people understand complicated political questions. Whether that's a candidate, as in a presidential endorsement, or an issue, like a ballot issue, where the devil is in the details."
Despite these lines of reasoning, some major newspapers have ended the practice. David Haynes of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained why his paper stopped endorsing candidates to NPR:
". . . it really boils down to this notion of independence. We work very hard each day to provide a balance of views on our pages and on our website increasingly and mobile devices as well. And we work hard to be open-minded and approach issues that we're going to editorialize on independently. We pull good ideas from both major schools of political thought, and we're pragmatic. We back ideas we think will work. Ideology is really immaterial.
So then, we do all that for 364 days of the year and turn around and choose sides in a bitter partisan election? I think that tends to undermine this whole idea of independence, and it really undermines this idea of being an honest broker of opinion. Again, that forum, that's our real mission. The editorial is a part of that."
He is on to something; distrust of the media is at an all-time high in the United States. One 2018 study found that many of those surveyed blamed perceived bias. You can't help but wonder if part of that is because newspapers squander their credibility by endorsing a candidate with one hand and then claiming not to be biased in their reporting with the other.
Do endorsements bias the reporting?
For the last 100 years or so the opinion and editorial sections of every major newspaper have been completely seperate entities. The people who decide who to endorse report to different people than the journalists who write the news do. The journalists often don't know who is getting endorsed until you do.
However, despite explainers on this which grace almost every opinion page in major papers and that this was taught to anybody who wasn't asleep in middle school, many people still fail to grasp this fact. The pervasiveness of this misunderstanding is why USA Today doesn't endorse anybody.
Danny Funt of the Columba Journalism Review explained that "Editors told me they've spent their careers explaining to readers the very simple difference between news and opinion sections." He attributes this misunderstanding to both "media illiteracy" on the part of the readers and to a failure of the news media to adequately explain itself.
Do endorsements convince anybody?
All of these questions also demand another one be answered: Does it actually help anybody to be endorsed by a newspaper at all?
A 2008 study from Brown University indicated that endorsements can change people's opinions. However, the effect is limited if the endorsement is expected. If a major newspaper in a cosmopolitan city known for having a center-left leaning editorial board endorses a Democrat for president not much will happen. On the other hand, a neutral or even right-leaning editorial board doing the same thing can carry great weight.
Northwestern also did a report on prediction markets and found that there are changes in who is more likely to win the race for president as a result of newspaper endorsements. Like Brown, they found that surprising endorsements had the most effect.
This said, however, a study by Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of people didn't feel influenced by endorsements at all. The remaining percentage were split on whether the newspaper's support would make them more or less likely to vote for the candidate.
There is the question of local races, though. Endorsements may matter more when the election is one that has gotten less media coverage and the typical voter can't name all of the candidates. As the Columba Journalism Review puts it, "Fewer Americans may clip out endorsements from the paper to bring to the polls, but for down-ballot races, there simply are no other media willing to interrogate potential property appraisers for 90 minutes."
They also quote the opinion editor for the Houston Chronicle, who claimed "Calls from readers wanting a comprehensive list of our endorsements outnumber those who are complaining about the process five-to-one." There may still be something to be said for the endorsement of an entity that spends a great deal of time reporting on and interviewing the candidates and then even more time on the effects of their actions.
Claims that newspaper endorsements were one the way out or don't matter have proven to be exaggerated. While not everyone will be convinced by an endorsement and a few people might even stop trusting a paper over it, they are going to be part of our democracy for the foreseeable future.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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