SMU Daily Campus: ‘Why We Endorse Candidates’
The endorsing of political candidates prior to elections is a journalistic tradition older than the inverted pyramid and Larry King, combined. Many college newspapers trod a similar endorsement path with student government candidates- penning editorials prior to campus elections spotlighting the contenders they feel will be the best holders of particular offices.
The Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University very recently published its endorsements for three student body representative positions. In a letter to the editor written in response, an SMU student argues that such endorsing is a step too far: “Though I would not attack the editorial board’s unbiased approach to interviewing and endorsing candidates, the fact remains that more than likely the members of the board had personal relationships with candidates or those close to the candidates which, due to human nature, affected their endorsements, whether consciously or unconsciously. This article is a humble suggestion from a student who believes in the power of a student-run news source but would hope that the Daily Campus in the future would show respect to the candidates and to the student body by advertising the candidates and the issues, not their personal opinions.”
This is a timeless ethical issue in collegemediatopia, and worthy of consideration every now and again. The student’s concerns strike at the heart of the two main trouble spots of student newspaper endorsements: 1) In a hyper-local environment like a college campus, it is inevitable for paper staffers to have a personal relationship with student government candidates or be friends of friends (or enemies of enemies) or simply have some sort of ‘insider’ information on them.
2) Student journalists’ identities are often overlaid or might shift at a moment’s notice- from student to classmate to housemate to athlete to student organization board member to Greek lifer to student employee in the office of communications- much more than a professional journo. This shifting presents numerous potential conflict of interest issues (real or perceived) when deciding on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.
The Daily Campus editorial board admirably responded to the concerned students’ respectful letter. In an editorial headlined simply “Why We Endorse Candidates,” one editor noted, “It is our job to consider the positions and leadership abilities of the candidates and make a fair and objective decision. We hope in this way to give SMU students a context and point of view to consider as they decide whom to vote for.
In my opinion, the main reasons these endorsements can and should continue:
1) The student paper is entrusted as the voice of the students, delivering information or commentary on every issue imaginable. Student government does not get a pass. As the Daily Campus editorial states, “The function of the editorial board is to issue opinions on behalf of the newspaper. Not issuing an opinion in student body elections . . . would be a waste of the board.”
2) Student government candidates have the potential to exert tremendous influence on campus. Apart from star athletes and popular profs, they are probably the most well-known people on campus. They are, in effect, public figures. We are not talking about endorsements of candidates for student drama club recording secretary or something similarly off the radar.
3) Student editors regularly wrestle with major ethical issues, making a conflict of interest recusal decision easy enough.
4) An endorsement is a recommendation, not a command- and it is not (necessarily) a criticism of the competition.
5) The paper has an opinion section. If you do not agree with a particular set of endorsements, write in and make your own. This is a point the Daily Campus piece powerfully drives home.