Tangled up in newsroom tradition

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Clark Hoyt's "Public Editor" column in the NYT on Sunday 14 September ("Getting Past the Formalities") responds to reader queries about Times practices in referring to people by name:

(1) Why "Ms. Palin" but "Mrs. Clinton"?

(2) Why "Barack Hussein Obama" three times on the front page on 28 August?

Some readers saw dark political motives at work.

Hoyt replied that (1) resulted from the application of a consistent policy on the use of courtesy titles (Miss, Mrs., Ms., Mr., and official titles like Gov.) and that (2) resulted from another set of Times newsroom policies on the use of full names, which, however, have sometimes been applied inconsistently. (Hoyt apologized.)

I think that the Times got itself into this mess through these policies (on courtesy titles and full names), which its readers cannot possible divine — they're newsroom traditions, not common knowledge — so that perfect consistency, or for that matter the occasional inconsistency, is not interpretable for readers, however important it might be for the editorial staff at the Times.

What I'm saying is that the Times staff is failing to do something all writing teachers tell their students to do: take your readers' viewpoint. Instead, they're looking at things from their viewpoint (including following the newsroom "rules".)

First convention: the use of courtesy titles. As Hoyt observed:

The Times, one of the last newspapers in the country to use courtesy titles, makes it a practice to ask women in the news how they would like to be referred to.

The practice has caused the Times to inquire of women (when they can) what their preference is. Hence, "Ms. Palin" but "Mrs. Clinton".

The convention applies to most sections of the paper, including the front news section, Business, and Arts (but not Sports, where courtesy titles are, so far as I can see, never used for athletes). It applies, of course, only to adults; this means the paper is obliged to judge when a person ceases to count as a child, a fraught decision in our society.

The convention applies to other-than-first mentions of someone, of either sex. First time, we get the name — "Sarah Palin", "Hillary Clinton" — and thereafter all mentions must use a courtesy title. An official title (like senator or governor) is allowable as a variant of the prefixes Miss, Mrs., Ms., Mr., but after the first time there MUST be a courtesy title. Every time.

"Courtesy title" is an odd nomenclature in this context. It suggests that the Times is being respectful, but its policy of using the titles for all non-athlete adults — even crazed killers and monstrous dictators — doesn't end up conveying respect. When Robert Mugabe is referred to, in non-first mentions, as "Mr. Mugabe" or "President Mugabe", I cringe at the idea that the Times is showing respect for the man.

It's just following a style sheet, not showing respect. But how are its readers supposed to know this? The style sheet might warm the hearts of the NYT staff, but what the readers see is inexplicable variation in the use of titles.

This is what I think of as the Downside of Consistency — all the difficulties that come from assuming that the people who read you will appreciate your (noble, principled) consistency. Mostly, they won't.

If you are methodical about adhering to the serial comma (or rejecting it absolutely), most of your readers aren't going to notice; they'll see both variants in what they read. If you are committed to using decimate to mean only 'decrease in number or amount by one-tenth', very few of your readers will notice; they'll see substantial numbers of the 'decrease hugely in number or amount' interpretations in what they read, and will probably read you that way (unless you supply your intended reading explicitly).

The NYT's readers can't be expected to appreciate the niceties of the paper's style sheet. They read stuff like ordinary people, not like NYT writers. The writers should recognize this.

If I ruled the Times newsroom, I'd get rid of courtesy titles. Tough, but fair.

[Qualification: some people have pointed out to me that courtesy titles can serve a disambiguating function, as when Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton are both relevant to a story. They can be disambiguated as Mrs./Senator Clinton and Mr./President Clinton. That's true, but the reference problem here is a lot bigger than these cases where a man and a woman are both involved; there are plenty of stories where people of the same sex and the same last name have to be referred to — unrelated people, parent and child, siblings, cousins, same-sex couples who have adopted the same family name, and so on. Usually supplying first names will do the trick, but sometimes even that is not sufficient, as with the two U.S. presidents George Bush, who have to be distinguished as George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, or as the elder George Bush and the younger George Bush, or in some cleverer way (like Bush 41 vs. Bush 43). Or by setting up the context so that the reference is clear.

The point here is that adopting a fixed strategy for expression because it allows disambiguation of some assortment of cases rarely addresses the larger problem, which has to be coped with by using a variety of strategies. Using courtesy titles lets journalists cope with certain instances of potential anbiguity in naming, but it's a pretty small patch, and might well be dispensed with entirely, because in a number of these instances it can suggest an invidious comparison the paper didn't intend.]

Second set of conventions. With the middle names, things get hairier. As Hoyt tells the story, there are three "newspaper policies or traditions" at work here:

Tradition one: "the newspaper calls well-known figures by the names they prefer — Bill Clinton, not William J. Clinton, Bob Dole, not Robert Dole." And Barack Obama.

Tradition two: "The Times has a long tradition of using middle names in the headlines and on first reference in "Man in the News or "Woman in the News" profiles. ["In the headlines" here means 'in the headlines on "Man in the News" or "Woman in the News" profiles, not in headlines in general — where unprefixed last names abound, for obvious reasons.]

Tradition three: "The Times has long been partial to using the full names of important people — American presidents and presidential candidates, for instance — in the lead paragraph of articles at significant moments in the news. Call it a drumroll or a bit of filagree."

Traditions two and three, taken together, are the ouch. They give rise to middle names in "X in the News" heads and in some lead paragraphs. These are fascinating, but quaint, customs. Hoyt beats the Times's breast for having been inconsistent on occasion — but, again, how are readers supposed to appreciate these subtleties of Times practice?

What the readers see is that sometimes the Times uses Barack Obama's. Since some critics of Obama have used the middle name Hussein in referring to him, as a way of suggesting (falsely) that Obama is a Muslim (and linking his name with that of Saddam Hussein), Times readers might reasonably wonder about the paper's motives in using the middle name. It's not particularly helpful to the readers to be told (once, in a "Public Editor" column at the bottom of a page in the Sunday editorial pages) that the middle name is just a consequence of arcane practices at the paper, which must be followed in the name of consistency.

If the Times staff would put themselves in the readers' place, they would see that some of these practices should simply be abandoned. Hoyt contemplates abandoning tradition three (but not tradition two):

In my mind, the experience calls into question the whole business of using middle names for historical effect in news stories — as opposed to profiles — unless the person is always known by both first and middle names …

But in the end Hoyt's recommendation is that the readers should change they way they read:

readers need to relax a little and take care not to read malign motives into ever Ms. or Hussein.

Times style rules. Everybody, get with the program.

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