Why newspapers endorse political parties

Toronto Star public editor Kathy English posits an answer to the question,
“Why do newspapers endorse?” by quoting a Star editor 36 years ago:
“The easy way for a newspaper, as for a citizen, would be not to
support any party in this election. But this is not a responsible
course for a citizen in a democratic society – or for a newspaper that
believes it has a responsibility to provide comment and opinion on the
issues of the day.”

Globe and Mail
editorial board editor John Geiger was asked the same question in an online discussion
which included some strong criticism by readers. One Globe critic said
by endorsing any party “you cause your objectivity, rightly or wrongly,
to be suspect in the public mind.” Another wrote, “Why alienate many of
your readers, who remember your silly endorsement when they consider
buying your paper in the future?”

Geiger’s response was that not endorsing a party in an election “would
be like spoiling a ballot. What’s the point? The decision Canadian
voters make on Tuesday is vital. “None of the above” is simply not an
option. Nor is neutrality…. (to) refuse to take a position on the
most important question before the country, is wrong-headed. It does
not serve the interests of readers and it does not serve the interests
of public discourse.”

Both briefly discussed the issue that, in my opinion, is critical to
any newspaper’s credibility in its prime role, of providing
information: the idea  — if too rarely the practice — there’s a
firewall between distinct editorial and news departments. Said Geiger:
“The editorial board and the news operation are separate animals.” Said
English: “…the Star’s editorial endorsement represents the Star’s
institutional voice and does not influence the newsroom’s goal of fair
news coverage. News and editorial opinions are separate entities, what
journalists often compare to the separation of church and state.”

Three comments about all this. My first thought is that too few readers
understand the distinction between opinion and news. In some newsrooms, especially small ones,
the distinction is blurred. Even when there’s a firewall the media
often fails to explain to our audience how it works. During my own experience
working on an editorial board, some people thought I was a member of
the corporate board of directors; other readers regularly assailed our
“unethical” lack of “balance” in editorials and opinion columns. Opinion columns that run alongside news stories on the same page often look the same, and even journalists might have to look twice to distinguish them.

Second, there is self-censorship by reporters who may report on “news”
while keeping in mind the opinions of the editor or corporate owners on
their pet topics.

Third — on a more serious note — the ideal of separating news and
opinion is extremely superficial compared to allocation of resources by
a newspaper’s managers, to reporters to cover “news” stories or to
editorial boards and columnists to provide opinion. Too many of our
media organizations, I suggest, hire mostly and in some cases only
opinion columnists who hew to the ideology of their corporate owners.
Many provide no resources to “objectively” cover issues the owners
disdain, or which are muddied with commercial considerations.