Should newspapers be in the business of endorsing candidates? And is there really an editorial firewall between the reporters and the editorial page of newspapers?
Yes, and yes, says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute’s Sense-making Project. Case in point: the recent coverage and editorial campaign about fluoride in the Tampa Bay Times.
It started when a majority of Pinellas County commissioners – “the Fluoride Four” – voted to stop paying to put fluoride in water supplies.
Times reporters provided ample coverage of the vote and its aftermath, McBride says. And they made an important decision.
“Rather than presenting the scientific arguments as equal on both sides,” she said, the paper’s reporting made it clear that science was entirely on the pro-fluoride side.
“We’re not even going to entertain that it’s bad for their health, because the science is definitive,” McBride said of the Times’ coverage.
The Times also launched an extensive campaign on its editorial page, naming the commissioners and arguing to defeat them and add fluoride back into the water supply.
“They essentially came at it with a baseball bat,” McBride said.
There’s some research that shows editorial endorsements don’t matter much in big, well-known races. If so, the Des Moines Register endorsement of Mitt Romney should have helped turn Iowa red.
But McBride says in local races, things are different. In this case, the two anti-fluoride commissioners up for re-election, Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield, lost.
“I gotta think it did have some influence, just because of the vacuum of information on small local races like that,” she said.
Some papers, such as the Lakeland Ledger, have gotten out of the business of endorsing candidates. They say they want to avoid any appearance of bias in news reporting.
But McBride said the firewall between editorial boards and newsrooms is still intact in most newsrooms.
“In general, when I talk with reporters, they don’t feel a lot of pressure to tow the company line,” she said.
“In this case, I think the reporters took the lead,” she said. “They weren’t wishy-washy about what scientists say, what doctors and dentists say about having fluoride in the water…and I think the editorial department followed suit.”