In the New York pages of today’s New York Times you’ll find a terrific story about a Cuban bicyclist named Damian Lopez Alfonso, who hasn’t let his handicaps (no arms) stop him from becoming a competitive racer. As the Times style requires, the story refers to him as Mr. Alfonso.

Had this story appeared in another logical location — the sports pages — the “Mr.” would have been removed. This is also a requirement of the Times’ style guide.

The Times mandates courtesy titles (Mr., Ms., etc.) only in news stories, though it drops them for some dead people and those it arbitrarily considers evil enough not to deserve them. For example, Osama Bin Laden lost his Mr. after US forces killed him in May. But Saddam Hussein was recently still being called Mr. Hussein, as Slate notes.

Entertainers get honorifics in the Times, so you’ll read stories about the Rolling Stones you’ll see references to Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards. (The Times reviewer of this Meat Loaf concert apparently couldn’t bring himself to writing the laugh-out-loud “Mr. Loaf,” and just used “Meat Loaf” throughout.)

Athletes — at least those deemed newsworthy by the Times — are entertainers, too. The make lots of money. They take lots of drugs. They get arrested. Oh, they perform. But no honorifics for them.

The Wall Street Journal used to be consistent. But in a recent move that was semi-lampooned even by its own columnist, it opted to drop the honorifics for stories in the sports section. The logic for the move? None, apart from the notion that it somehow sounded better, or at least less ridiculous, to just go with last names.

These policies aren’t just inconsistent. They’re incoherent.

They’re also a quaint vestige of a dying era, when the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the vanishingly small number of other papers that do this actually believed they were showing respect for the people they covered. (Except for supremely evil people and athletes, who obviously deserve none.) Did the papers self-enforced civility (except for athletes and people deemed supremely evil) may actually have had an impact on the journalists’ work, or on the perception of the newspapers that had this policy?

But respect is in short enough supply in our society. There’s nothing wrong with honorifics, if they’re used consistently. The incoherent policies at the Times and Journal don’t demonstrate respect for the people they cover when they deliberately omit courtesy titles for a single class of people in specific pages; rather, they demonstrate disrespect.

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5 Responses to “New York Times’ Incoherent Honorifics”
  1. Honorifics have a legitimate use which you don’t seem to see.

    If you are doing a comprehensive printed index of all mentions of an individual in a printed newspaper, then the honorific becomes an extremely handy marker which gives the indexer something to look for when compiling the index.

    Sports figures would not get the same typographical treatment, because they show up in the sports section every single day and those don’t get indexed. But if Mr. Slugger gets married and is in the society pages, he’ll merit the honorific so that the indexer knows to treat it specially.

    As a secondary bonus, using honorifics means that you can flag to the copy editor that they need to make sure that people’s names are spelled correctly, a task too often incomplete in the current era of news gathering.

    • Dan Gillmor says:

      Ed, athletes don’t necessarily show up every day — plenty of the people in the Times sports section are mentioned just once, especially college athletes. Only the local and/or famous ones playing individual sports or for professional or semi-professional (i.e. university) teams show up repeatedly.

      By your standard, Mayor Bloomberg should never get an honorific.

      But the point of honorifics, as explained by news organizations, is that they are a signal of civility — and I don’t object to them for that reason. What I object to is their inconsistent use, in ways that only demonstrate disrespect to the people who don’t get them.

  2. John Maas says:

    Thirty years ago, my partners and I were renovating an office above 8th Ave in the garment district of Manhattan. The client was the organization, the band of which Meat Loaf was the head. One morning he walked on to the job and was introduced around as Meat which is what everyone called him. I got down off a ladder, walked over, shook his hand and said “pleased to meet you, Mr. Loaf” whiich did draw a laugh including the heartiest from Meat. Thanks for the memory.
    Also, given that there are about 45 million people in the U.S. who speak Spanish, one might think that the Times would know that the Cuban bicyclist’s honorific would be Mr. Lopez.

  3. Jay Carlson says:

    One place I wish fewer honorifics were in use is for people who no longer are in a role. Titles like Senator or Judge used on people who sometimes richly deserved removal from a position are grating. Worse are military titles; part of why a General gets attention is that she has a staff and a greater institution to support her (and she represents them as well). After retirement she’s just a consultant (or board member) with service in the military as interesting background information. “Former General Chris Johnson” is a good introduction but that’s not what I see in the chyron.

    I guess the same would apply to Professor, but it doesn’t seem to get used that way.

  4. Marshall Jaffe says:

    In the October 31, 1965, New York Times story about the suicide of Daniel Burros, a Klansman exposed by McCandlish Phillips as being Jewish, no honorifics are used to refer to to Klansmen who were with Burros when he killed himself. Though they were repellent, do you suppose they were intentionally given the same treatment as Hitler and Stalin?
    http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F50E16F73454177A93C3A9178AD95F418685F9

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