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 who 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?