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Do Media Endorsements Matter?

7th October 2016

As the US Presidential election enters its final straights, this week has seen a slew of media endorsements. Jon Meakin asks: Do they make a difference?

This is an extraordinary Presidential election by any year’s standards. The only thing the two main candidates have in common is their unpopularity, leaving many voters in a quandary. As an Uber driver said to me this week, “It’s like a choice between shooting yourself and poisoning yourself.”

One of the most startling things to me, in an election that sometimes throws up several startling things before breakfast, was the endorsement this week of Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, by The Chicago Tribune. I nearly choked on my Mr Holmes pastry. Gary Johnson? Really? The man who does not know what Aleppo is, let alone where it is, or what he would do about it were he Leader of the Free World. And The Chicago Tribune – this is not some two-bit rag, but a stalwart of America’s great newspaper tradition since 1847, once the self-styled “World’s Greatest Newspaper”. And it has endorsed Gary Johnson?

This set me thinking: Do newspaper endorsements matter anymore?

Over the years, there have been many academic studies of the influence of newspaper endorsements of political parties or of particular candidates, which seem to suggest that such endorsements can make a difference. And of course, media barons like to claim credit when “their” candidate wins – those in the UK will remember “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” when the General Election result confounded the pollsters and returned John Major to Number 10. But things are different now.

We live in an age of media proliferation, with newspaper sales in long-term decline in the English speaking world, their model unable to keep pace with the speed of the modern news cycle, and a digital-first generation looking to Twitter and other sources for real time updates.

Looking at which of the Presidential candidates have been endorsed by which media is quite telling: At the time of writing, it’s 25 for Clinton, six for Gary Johnson, seven for no candidate, two for anyone but Trump, and none for Trump. But we have seen no corresponding movement in the polls, no huge upswing in support Gary Johnson in the greater Chicago area.

To say that newspaper or the media endorsements make no difference would be unwise, and probably untrue. But it does appear that as these once great media titles become a less dominant features in the lives of the public, their influence diminishes. They are certainly less influential than they were at the time of Truman vs Dewey, and a whole lot less influential than their owners would care to admit. Many voters are at least as likely to be influenced by the opinions of celebrities, sports stars, business people and – importantly – their peers.

But here’s another thought: Maybe these media titles are now less concerned with influencing public opinion as they are in reflecting it.

As evinced by my Uber driver’s point of view and apathy among many younger votes in particular, there is a feeling of “a plague on both your houses” when it comes to the two main candidates in this election. And maybe it is that mood that the Chicago Tribune is trying to tap into.

Grayling Team

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