A newspaper that uses courtesy titles for the men and women appearing in its news columns sometimes receives reader queries regarding its use of such titles. The bone of contention is usually the practice of referring to criminals as “Mr.”
Lately, as you might guess, such queries have focused on Osama bin Laden: “How could you call that animal Mr.?” some readers ask. And journalists themselves can be hazy about the answer.
The Dallas Morning News began using courtesy titles more than a dozen years ago. The newspaper’s editors decided to identify men appearing in its news columns not by surnames only but by the honorifics people would use in direct address. The News’ practice at the time, which followed the Associated Press Stylebook, was to identify men by their full names on first reference and thereafter by surnames only. Women were treated differently, however. They were Miss, Ms., or Mrs. in all references, just as they would have been in conversation. Readers — particularly professional women who resented an identification that focused on marital rather than professional status — asked why the different treatment. The policy seemed indefensible, even to most of us practicing it.
Many newspapers still follow that practice of identifying the sexes differently, although the AP itself has changed its policy (both sexes are referred to by first and last names; courtesy titles are used if the source prefers it). Other newspapers use courtesy titles for both men and women. Among them are The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Interestingly, in my 20 years at The News, readers protesting courtesy titles for felons or otherwise reprehensible characters never protested courtesy titles for women, no matter how unsavory their character or heinous their crime. Apparently, Lucrezia Borgia could be Miss, Ms., or Mrs. without its seeming untoward, suggesting that reader discomfort is at least in part a matter of conditioning. We are familiar with seeing men addressed in the print media by their surnames alone, but not women. Let a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde appear in the news, and “Miss Parker” does not trouble the same readers who are bothered by “Mr. Barrow.”
We found other questionable features of the identification style adhered to by most newspapers in those days — and by some today. Only medical doctors were called “Dr.”, for example; holders of doctoral degrees in other fields were not. There were precise courtesy titles for holders of political office, but not for, say, the clergy or for academics.
In 1989, we decided to treat people in the news columns equally, which meant that men and women alike would be granted courtesy titles. But we wanted an equitable and workable policy. Exceptions would be a necessary and sensible few, but no exception would be based on disrespect. We also widened courtesy title options to include political, academic, military, police, civic and clerical titles.
The exceptions to the courtesy title policy would be several: historical figures (no Mr. Columbus or Mr. Hitler), people with single names (no Ms. Madonna or Mr. Meatloaf) and athletes appearing in game stories (no Mr. Rodman passed the ball to Mr. Pippin).
In short, nothing ridiculous.
But no exception would be based upon behavior or reputation. Why? Because The News didn’t — and doesn’t — wish to be in the position of deciding how bad someone has to be before it withholds common courtesy. That policy would be untenable: First, where do you draw the lines? Second, where do you get the right? Such a policy would be as arrogant as the press is often accused of being.
Beyond that, according even criminals civil treatment has valid and valuable precedent in our society. Honorifics are knit into the language of the courts — the very institutions that deal with criminals. Even judges delivering the harshest sentences use courtesy titles when addressing the convicted. Should the media do less?
Over time, The News’ policy has borne up well, although some may consider it stuffy. It has added common courtesy, common sense, and consistency to the way people are treated. The editors believe that if they give the readers the facts, they’ll be capable of making their own judgments about the worth of individuals in the news.
Bill Borders, a senior editor at The New York Times, was asked recently why The Times gave courtesy titles to people such as Osama bin Laden. “It’s a matter of our civility,” Mr. Borders explained. “Not theirs.”
Paula LaRocque, assistant managing editor at The Dallas Morning News and the newspaper’s writing coach for 20 years, is retiring from day-to-day duties at the newspaper. She will continue to consult, however, and to write and train for The News. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.