At a time when Americans increasingly say that they don’t believe news organizations, the Seattle Times launched a high profile social media campaign to augment its editorial endorsement of Referendum 74, the state’s marriage equality measure.
The editorial, published online and in Sunday’s paper, called on readers to take a photo of themselves with a sign proclaiming “I do” and “Approve Referendum 74″ (pdf). As of this writing, there are almost 200 photos at seati.ms/ido74.
— SeattleTimes Opinion (@SeaTimesOpinion) September 17, 2012
The Seattle Times embarked on this campaign at a time when newspapers across the country have stopped endorsing candidates, with the Chicago Sun-Times and the Halifax Media Group backing down this year.
In a book published in 2000, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania (home of the original FactCheck.org) noted that research conducted before “steep” drops in newspaper readership showed that endorsements affected voter decisions in presidential elections. This was also long before the advent of the World Wide Web.
However, research on elections in 1996 and 1999 showed that many voters did not know which candidate their paper had endorsed; “many more had the wrong idea” (p 156) she wrote. In 2004, Jamieson said that advertising “sponsored by the candidate” was largely responsible for any impact arising from endorsements.
In fact, by 1996 Editor & Publisher reported that only about 3-in-10 newspapers were printing presidential endorsements. Allen H. Neuharth, the man behind USA Today, “is widely quoted for his view that newspapers have no business making political recommendations.”
So why go out on this limb, take such a risk?
Kate Riley, Seattle Times editorial page editor, said that the paper wanted “to encourage people to talk to each other” in families and in neighborhoods. This issue, Riley told me, represents an “exceptional circumstance” surrounding a “fundamental human right.” As a result, “it called for an exceptional effort on our part.”
She explained that it was intergenerational conversation that led the Seattle Times to change its editorial position on gay marriage. In 2000.
Seven cousins, then ranging in age from 21 to 30, were assigned to teams, for and against civil unions. Though they argued vigorously for the respective viewpoints, it became clear they were all in agreement: The time for civil unions had come.
The paper’s editorial board encouraged the Washington State legislature to follow the lead of Vermont and authorize same-sex civil unions. Two years prior, the legislature followed the lead of and passed the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. (Several portions have been judged unconstitutional. This week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg predicted that the Supreme Court would take up the issue.)
Clearly, the “print it and leave then leave it alone” days of editorial influence are behind us. Riley agrees that everyone no longer “pays attention … that’s not how it is anymore.”
That’s why the Seattle Times editorial board tries to get readers involved with its content and experiments with tools other than ink-on-paper. In June, for example, the board invited Prometheus Brown, a hip-hop artist, to write a column in response to gang shooting deaths. The result was a song and video.
I could not find an editorial in support or opposition in the Baltimore or Annapolis papers, where voters have the opportunity to ratify legislative action, as in Washington. Nor could I find support or opposition in Maine, although I found a sympathetic editorial that fell short of making a recommendation. Only in Minnesota did I find a firm recommendation (vote no on a constitutional amendment codifying DOMA).
The Seattle Times and these other papers subscribe to a different view than USA Today or the Wall Street Journal, both of which eschew endorsements. “My job as editorial page editor is to provide recommendations to our readers,” Riley continued. “It’s also to be influential… if we want to be influential we need to go where people are talking. Younger people especially are interacting with each other in social media.”
— Amber McDonald (@Amber__McDonald) September 18, 2012
— On Dawner On Blitzen (@jdhowa2) September 17, 2012
— Sharon Chan (@sharonpianchan) September 18, 2012
— Hannah Birch (@hannahsbirch) September 18, 2012
“Going back to this idea of exceptional circumstance,” Riley said, “I would hope we would have supported the emancipation proclamation. Women’s suffrage. These are different. These deserve muscle power.”
Yes they do. And providing that muscle power — moving beyond ink-on-paper into active advocacy — is an act of bravery, even in blue Seattle. So are those smiling photos. Hats off to all for standing up and speaking out.