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June 17, 2018

The Dr. is in the house…but not in the news

Writing about web page https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44496876

The BBC reported on 15 June 2018 that “the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail had proposed to change its house style to only refer to medical doctors by their titles.” On 16 June 2018, the story also said, “In BBC style, the title Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant.” (I only note this because, when I initially read the story on 15 June 2018, I’m sure that it said that the new Globe and Mail policy was consistent with BBC style guidelines, so I believe there’s an unacknowledged amendment to the originally published version.)

The story examined a “row” that followed a tweet by Dr. Fern Riddell, who noted that it was appropriate for media to use the title of address that she has earned rather than to arbitrarily re-title her. The BBC predictably framed the story as two-sided conflict, highlighting sexist attacks via Twitter on Dr. Riddell by men and inspiration PhDs who were women had taken from Dr. Riddell’s advocacy.

The way a story is framed affects the way we think about it (obviously). The BBC frames the Globe and Mail’s style decision and the various resultant tweets as a two-sided conflict, so we are channeled to interpret all information in the context of that two-sided conflict. Our role is to read the story and pick which side has won and then, of course, join that side. It’s very difficult to interpret information through a different frame than the one we’re given.

In the case of this story, we’re missing a fairly obvious conclusion: The Globe and Mail (and BBC) are stupid for using titles in stories at all. They should update their style guides to simply use last names. Here’s why:

1. Honorifics are unnecessary in news.

Titles like “Mr,” “Ms,” “Dr” etc. are a fairly lame form of honorifics. Some languages have really interesting honorific systems, but English hasn’t had much going on in the honorifics department since thou got eaten up by you.

All honorifics do social work. In English, these titles help us out in a space where we need to address someone by their name, but it might be impolite to address them by their first name. So we need them for formality, to bridge social distance, etc. Strictly cultural stuff that helps us be polite.

But the news is under no obligation to be polite. News isn’t normally addressed from one person to another the way conversation is. News isn’t supposed to make people feel nice. It’s supposed to be detached and objective. The news can do that better without honorifics.

2. Titles like “Mr” etc. don’t add anything to the news.

A news story uses names so that readers know who did what and/or what happened to whom. Titles don’t provide any referential help beyond what we already get from a person’s last name. Consider:

  1. Dr. Riddell received hostile emails.
  2. Ms Riddell received hostile emails.
  3. Miss Riddell received hostile emails.
  4. Riddell received hostile emails.

There’s absolutely no difference in the way that the three possibilities refer. Each one has the exact same subject, and there’s no way that a reader could interpret the referent of (4) as different from the referents of (1)-(3).

News writing is supposed to be concise. Word counts and character counts are supposedly at a premium. Here is a case where writers can cut one word out of their stories for every single time they refer to a person.

Somewhat bizarrely in the BBC story, Dr. Riddell is referred to by her first name, “Fern.” It would be interesting to know if she recommended this, or if they adopted it as a strategy on their own. If BBC did it on their own, they’d better refer to “Jeremy” in the next story they write about Labour.

3. Dropping all titles gives the media a really easy way to be progressive.

Or, at least, to appear progressive. Or just not actively regressive.

Look, we can agree that it’s stupid to give women a title on the basis of whether or not they’re hitched, and that if we were starting English today we wouldn’t do the Miss/Mrs thing. Right? And we’re 30ish years past that being an interesting thing to say? Yeah?

Ok, good. So now we can acknowledge at least that the title system we have doesn’t cover everybody. For instance, people under 18. (I dare you to post that we should call 5-year-old boys Master.) Also people who are/identify as transgender, non-gender-conforming, ungendered, cross-gender, etc.

At some point, the news must handle these. I mean, at a really banal level, there’s some copy editor somewhere wringing their hands over who to conform to the style guide in a story about a thirteen-year-old who identifies as transgender. But at a bigger level, some day some news board of directors is going to debate how to position the outlet’s position on social issues and how the readers will take their activism (or not) and how advertisers will react.

Or just quit using titles, and they never have to deal with it. So, in the interest of lazy self-interest, news media should drop all titles of address period.

4. There’s no way to apply a style guide on titles consistently.

In the case of the BBC’s stated style guide--“Dr is used for doctors of medicine, scientific doctors and church ministers who hold doctorates, when relevant”--it’s unclear how the relevance standard would be determined. I’ve been interviewed for the news a few times. In each case, I got interviewed about the stuff that my PhD is in. So my “Dr” is directly relevant. (Which is the point Dr. Riddell was making with her initial tweet.) I guess maybe if I was interviewed about baseball, they wouldn’t use “Dr”--but why on earth would I be interviewed about baseball? (I dislike the shift, btw.)

And what about titles like “Reverend” or “Lieutenant Colonel”? These are often used in American media at least, and I suspect that few news outlets would welcome the right-wing backlash that would accompany a story about the liberal media disrespecting veterans by refusing to call them by the titles they earned. But PhDs earned the title “Dr,” so “earning it” is not going to be a standard applied to all people equally.

And if you use “Dr” because the person is a medical doctor then what you’re saying is the important part of the address is really disambiguating their profession. But then why not refer to “Joiner Smith” in a story about carpentry, or “Nurse Jones” in the same medial story where you quoted Dr. Thomas?

And then suddenly you’ve painted yourself back into the corner of gendered address, since “doctor” is traditionally gendered male and “nurse” is traditionally gendered female.

In short, the Globe and Mail, BBC, and all other news outlets just dump titles.

Last names are enough, and they’re better.


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