Why we don’t endorse candidates
Like you, dear readers, journalists are citizens. We pay taxes, queue for licenses, and cast our votes. Well, someone thought us to be special, in a way, and allowed us to vote early because we’re tied up on election day in a high-octane coverage of everything related to the ballot.
In some countries, everyone can vote early, whatever one’s profession is. This doesn’t give any excuse to those who work on election day and those with travel plans to miss the polls.
I prefer this egalitarian approach: it provides all an opportunity to vote. After all, it’s not only journalists who work on voting day; so do nurses, doctors, drivers, waiters, street sweepers, security guards, household helpers, call center staff and many others. But that’s another story.
What’s peculiar to our profession is that we do not - and cannot - endorse candidates. Generally, in the Philippines, we cannot recommend to the public whom to vote for.
News organizations cover candidates and their campaigns, analyze issues, sift through the rhetoric, navigate through the noise, and see beyond the theater. We try to make sense of what’s happening.
We are also forums for ideas, discussions, debates and thoughtful commentary. This role of the media has become more pronounced online, where feedback is instant. Social media is a vast marketplace of chatter. The challenge is to find and select "kernels of reasonableness," as one American newspaper put it.
Part of media’s mission is to be an independent voice and chronicler of the nation’s comings and goings. Let me add some qualifiers: we’re zealous about our independence. We aspire to be fiercely independent.
If we endorse candidates, that puts our independence in question. We may be tainted as playing favorites. Reporters will be seen from a partisan lens and this will shut some doors.
It’s tough for the public to separate news coverage from the op-ed section. That’s like peeling a grape—the skin belongs very much to the fruit.
In all my years in journalism - and that’s crawling to 40 - none of the news organizations I’ve joined endorsed candidates, whether local or national. Entering the political fray by telling people whom to vote for puts the credibility of the newsroom at risk. When that happens, trust for the media outfit is dented. Who will believe us?
Surely, others will disagree with this position. In the US, most newspapers endorse candidates, led by the venerable New York Times and Washington Post. They operate in a different context; their society is far from personalistic and views the editorial position as separate from the news coverage. Both newspapers, however, are regarded as liberal (translate: pro-Democrats) as opposed to the conservative, pro-Republican media.
The Wall Street Journal and USA Today are the exceptions; they generally do not recommend candidates.
The Atlanta Journal changed its mind and dropped political endorsements a few years ago. They explained it this way: "Since the early days, US newspapers have put their stamp of approval - or disapproval - on political candidates during election seasons. It’s a system that goes back to days when cities had many newspapers, each with very clear political agendas. That world has changed…We see our role now as providing you with information to help you make decisions—and not trying to make them for you."
In Europe, newspapers are usually aligned with political parties. They support the programs of, say, the conservatives, socialists, or liberals. That is their tradition and milieu and it has informed their politics for ages.
Taking a stand
While it’s a no-no to endorse candidates, news organizations can - and do - take positions on issues. You can see these in editorials of newspapers and in the campaigns of TV networks.
The motherhood campaign, of course, is for clean elections and well-informed choices. GMA News launched "Dapat Tama" (www.dapattama.com) as a call to vote honestly and wisely. ABS-CBN continues its long-running "Boto mo, Ipatrol mo" campaign for voter awareness and vigilance. The new kid on the bloc, TV 5, chose "Pagbabago 2013" as its theme for its election coverage.
On other issues, various news organizations have called for the passage of the freedom of information bill, eradication of corruption in the media, stepping up of anti-human trafficking measures and transparency in the courts, among others.
News outfits are not permanently neutral like the Swiss. We aspire for fairness and balance, not so much in the he-said, she-said mold, but in putting competing ideas in perspective, in checking out the true version of events. Some misconstrue balance as simply getting the opposition to comment on the administration’s lapses or successes; or asking a public figure’s nemesis what he/she thinks of this person’s stand on contentious issues such as divorce.
Here’s where the big challenge lies. Readers and media watchdogs should call our attention to keep us in check—with nothing but good journalism as the north star. Keep political or other agendas outside the door, please.
And, before I forget, let’s be transparent. Aliases and false identities have no place in an honest conversation. - Rappler.com