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Tuesday, November 01, 2005 | Editor’s Note: Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) and it cannot endorse political candidates or ballot measures. Voice offers the views of the state’s 10 largest newspapers on the ballot initiatives as a service to our readers.
For the last few weeks, newspaper editors across the state have been trumpeting their opinions on the November election’s ballot initiatives loud and clear. As the date of the vote grows near, editorial pages have been dripping with political rhetoric and heated discussion of the eight measures that will be put to Californians one week from today.
But while the editors who pen those passionate pleas to their readers would like to believe their words are likely to sway voters one way or another, experts say the time when newspaper editorials had the clout to noticeably influence elections has long gone.
The Voice of San Diego compiled a table that lists the editorial endorsements of California’s 10 largest newspapers. Every one of those newspapers have taken a stand one way or the other on all of the propositions. Most have written editorials on at least two of the propositions and many have links directly to their endorsements on the front pages of their Web sites.
Whether anyone’s likely to notice is another matter.
“Newspapers in general are increasingly irrelevant,” said Judy Muller, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.
Muller said that irrelevance stems from a couple of different things. Firstly, she said, fewer people are reading newspapers, turning instead to the Internet or other sources of multimedia. Secondly, she said, in an election that many people feel is likely to have a low turnout, those who are likely to vote probably already have their minds made up on the issues.
“They don’t need the newspaper to tell them how to vote,” said Dean Nelson, founder and director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “The reason that they’re reading the newspaper is they’re probably fairly astute. To presume that the paper’s going to influence where they’re coming from in their voting, I think, exaggerates the power of that news organization.”
Nelson argued that newspapers have become gradually less politically polarized over the last few decades, choosing instead to attempt to appeal to the widest number of readers possible.
The result, Nelson said, has been a steady erosion in the importance of editorials, particularly when they deal with election issues.
That’s not to say that newspapers shouldn’t write about the issues, Nelson said. He thinks it’s imperative that the media offers information on the contentious issues that will be put to the voters. However, when that content crosses the line into taking a stand one way or another, he thinks a media organization is making a gamble with its readership. That’s a gamble he said is not worth taking.
“For them to endorse one candidate over another, personally, I find it a little pointless,” Nelson said. “I think that part of our news media practice has outlived its usefulness.”
When dealing with an election that’s unlikely to yield a very high turnout however, some experts argue all the publicity could still have some effect.
“The lower the turnout of the election, the more influential newspapers can be,” said Peter Anderson, professor of communications at the School of Communications at San Diego State University.
However, Anderson said one has to look back to the 1940s and ’50s to find the last time a newspaper had any real effect on an election result.
These days, he argued, the proliferation of other media sources greatly limits the effect of editorials. Most notably, he said, television commercials have become so ubiquitous that they are likely to drown out any other voices trying to be heard.
Crucially, Anderson said, television commercials reach low-propensity voters. That means people who aren’t likely to read up on the finer elements of a proposition to change the laws on voting districts and probably won’t be taking much notice of editorial endorsements.
That’s not to say that editorial endorsements are completely useless.
Muller argued that the endorsements often serve to clarify what can be very complicated issues, and to augment the knowledge of informed voters, so they can make the best possible decision. That’s especially important in an election like this one, where there are many conflicting and controversial issues.
“Not everybody has that little pamphlet that says ‘This is backed by the drug companies, this one’s backed by the ACLU’ ” she said. “In that way, it helps people figure it out.”
Nobody expects newspapers to stop making endorsements any time soon, however, and the editorials will likely keep flowing until the day of the election. Some of the editors contacted explained that their newspapers were releasing the endorsements one-by-one over time to keep interest in the issues high.
Just how many people out there are holding their breath waiting for the next in-depth analysis of Proposition 80, which deals with regulation of electric service providers, is anyone’s guess.
Please contact Will Carless directly at