Courtesy Titles Are about More Than Respect

Article excerpt

MASTERING THE ART

Newspapers that use courtesy titles should put serious thought into the consistency of their use.

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. …