Other Matters: How About A Little Courtesy?

For a couple of hundred years, newspapers used courtesy titles. Many papers that equated Abraham Lincoln with the devil often wrote about “Mr. Lincoln” or “The President,” even as their editorials pilloried him. Up until about the time of Ronald Regan, in news columns and in radio and television newscasts, whoever was president received the respect of title. The operating theory in most of US journalism was that the office warrants respect regardless of the politics and policies of its occupant.

Sometime in the 1970s or early ‘80s, liberationists of various persuasions pressured news organizations (or, if you insist, “the media”) to drop “Mrs.,” ”Miss,” “Mr,” “Dr.” and so forth. Their argument was that the titles offended an emerging sense that such distinctions are discriminatory, offensive to equality. Listening to the news on National Public Radio this morning, I found myself wincing every time anchors and field reporters called the president “Obama.” Today, after the first reference, we rarely hear or see titles, even when the second reference is to the President of The United States.

Among the few exceptions in print are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. I must acknowledge NPR’s Morning Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. Mr. Simon uses titles when he refers to people in news stories and interviews.

As for equality, I have never heard the argument for courtesy titles put better than the late Norman Isaacs put it in 1985. A former chairman of the National News Council and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), Mr. Isaacs (pictured) was the keynote speaker at the first of a series of journalism ethics conferences that I put together for the Foundation for American Communications (FACS). His audience was a roomful of high-powered editors, publishers, reporters, journalism critics and educators. Here is an excerpt from his talk:

Do courtesy titles matter? A Howard University professor recently came up to me and said, “I don’t know of a black man or woman of substance who doesn’t wince when seeing his or her name in print and Norman Isaacs 1985who is referred to only by the last name after the first full name reference. It takes their minds back to the days when we were all called ‘boy.’” I was taken by surprise by his candor and passion on the subject, yet I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have run into so many snide and negative comments about the practice that I feel we do great damage to the psyche of the citizenry at large. What does a young boy think when his father accomplishes something of merit and is called “Wilson” in the newspaper report? Can the boy address his teacher by only a last name? The Roper organization has done two recent polls on this matter. Both show widespread disapproval of the absence of courtesy titles. More telling, the disapproval is remarkably high among women who do not have college degrees. Do editors care? I pray so. I hope they care more about the families who buy their newspapers than the young staff reporters who hold such strong ideas about what newspaper policies ought to be.

Mr. Isaacs went on to quote studies that Kristen McGraff, president of Minnesota Opinion Research Incorporated, did for the ASNE and the Associated Press Managing Editors.

She traced a large part of the credibility gap to the young transient reporters on staff. Young transients, she said, often have views and opinions that counter the views and opinions of people who buy and read the newspaper. This is also true of the millions who watch TV. The credibility gap is real and it runs damn deep.

In 2013 are young transient reporters committed to social change still driving the idea that courtesy titles in print and broadcast news are undemocratic? Do three decades with courtesy titles all but banished mean that they are gone forever? The name of that conference was Journalism Ethics: Why Change? The question it implied is worth asking today, when ratings and circulation are declining:

Why not change?

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  1. Des stanley says

    Thanks for touching on a practice that I regard as a cheapshot way of demeaning someone in print, while just as opposed to bow and scrape. Giving someone his or her title takes nothing away from the writer and/or commentator.

  2. says

    Thanks for addressing this topic, Doug. Like you, I grit my teeth every time I hear the president, vice president, or some other high-ranking person referred to only by his last name. And it doesn’t matter who sits in the chair—I always refer to Pres. Obama’s predecessor as “Pres. Bush,” despite not having supported him.

  3. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Hi, Ramsey,

    Baughan here. You’re right kind of weird.

    Having moved to rural North Carolina 15 yrs ago, I’ve experienced the other extreme—The Driving ‘Miss Daisy’ name game. For years, the ladies I work with ask me “How’s “Miss Sallie” doing?’

    Who’s “Miss Sallie”?! How about ‘Mrs. Baughan’ or ‘Sallie?’ Strange!

    I do agree that ‘Obama’ seems way too casual for Mr. President, but in fairness, they called President Bush, “Bush”. Or was that just a description of him?

    Thanks, Mr. Ramsey!

  4. Mike Ferring says

    Formalities of a bygone era, I’m afraid. But “Obama”? Ouch. Surely we can hold onto “the President” can’t we?

  5. Bill Benjamin says

    Great post, Doug. The disrespect shown this President is unlike that shown toward any previous one. And it’s all about his race. Not only am I thankful to have lived long enough to see the first African-American president, but I am equally thankful that the person is Barack Obama….a man of thoughtfulness, heart, introspection, intellect and fairness. Many Americans care not a wit about those attributes nor would they recognize them when they see them displayed.

  6. says

    This disrespect has been rampant since President Nixon’s administration. It does rankle when young people do not show respect to the President, the Governor, even the Mayor but, as you noted, the news media do it (especially the networks with the “slants”, either right or left.)

    Thanks for writing this post!

  7. Randy Reddick says

    Hey, friend, thanks.

    We need a good dose of respect today. Might improve a lot of relations.

    An interesting counter to the trend you chronicle is my experience with Asia-Pacific area journalists. For the last 10 years I have been teaching journalists from that region through the auspices of the Asia Centre for Journalism and the Ateneo de Manila University. While I have made a couple of personal visits to the region, the teaching is generally done using a series of online tools. Uniformly, I am addressed as “Sir,” and sometimes as “Doctor Reddick, Sir.” These are working journalists, some just trying to improve skills, some working on a degree.

  8. Ken says

    Great post, Doug. We live in an age in which the NY Times still uses titles, but also lets one of its columnists refer to the president as “Barry.” I find that sad.