Home > Uncategorized > Discourteously Tilting at Courtesy Titles

Discourteously Tilting at Courtesy Titles

-first posted at RTDNA.org on June 9, 2009

I’ve been going to the same doctor ever since I moved to Columbia in 1986.  That’s 23 years of seeing the same guy for the occasional check-up or minor health problem.  I’m sure I’m not even averaging once a year, so let’s estimate I go about every 18 months or so.  That’s roughly 17 or 18 visits to see this doctor in my lifetime.  We were relatively young men when this relationship started.   Now I’m 49 and he’s got about five years on me, I’m guessing.  It’s a relationship I’ve had longer than with most of my friends and professional colleague.  I see him more often than I do any of my cousins.  Yet I still call him “Doctor” when I see him.  Shouldn’t I just be calling him Jeff by now?

I’ve been fascinated (and somewhat annoyed) by this seemingly mandatory courtesy title we give physicians.  Medical doctors are important members of society, no doubt.  And I suppose there was a time when there was a good reason to single them out with a title that would let everyone know about their training.  Who wouldn’t want to know which man in the village was able to help heal you?  It’s a bit easier to find medical help these days than just checking out titles, but the tradition has stuck.

By now, you may be wondering what this has to do with journalism.  The connection comes from a very public crime committed just more than a week ago in neighboring Kansas.  I happened to be in Wichita on business the day after a man entered a Lutheran Church there, shooting and killing controversial abortion doctor George Tiller.  I was interested in this chance to watch the local media in action on what had to be as big a story for the area as the BTK Killer case from a few years ago.  Sitting in my hotel room, I switched the channels and checked out the day-after coverage across the dial.  The stories were good, the stations were working all the angles, and in general, I thought each was doing a good job serving its audience.  But something was troubling me in the back of my head.  I couldn’t at first figure out what it was, but then it hit me.  It was the courtesy title.  Everyone referred to Tiller as “Dr. Tiller,” even on subsequent references in the same story.  It all seemed just a bit too deferential to me.  I can see, obviously, identifying the victim on first reference by his controversial profession, “abortion doctor George Tiller.”  But I used “doctor” as a lowercase adjective, and would just refer to the victim on following references as “Tiller” if I were writing the stories.  Just to check, I made sure the media weren’t referring to the suspect in the case with the courtesy title “Mr.”  That might make some sense of Kansas politeness in address.  But they weren’t.  He was just “Roeder.”  Now, I’m not saying the victim and suspect in this or any story deserve the same level of courtesy.  But Tiller was a very controversial figure. Giving him the courtesy title “Dr.” on every reference elevates him somehow.  And that’s not our role—even following a shocking murder.

If you’re not buying the elevation argument, consider the calls every newsroom has inevitably received over the past twenty years or so.  If your newsroom is like mine, we dropped the mandatory “Mr.” title as a constant in front of the name of the President of the United States years ago.  But invariably, after a story in which we use a naked “Bush” or now “Obama,” we get the call from someone—usually up there in years—who thinks we are being disrespectful to the man or the office by not always saying “President Bush” or “Mr. Obama.”  There’s a solid piece of evidence that using a courtesy title bestows a level of reverence higher than the common person deserves.  Still want to keep using that “Dr.” every time Wichita?

I, for one, am taking a courtesy title inventory in my shop.  I’m going through our style guides and figuring out who gets the titles and who doesn’t.  It’s a seemingly random set of rules from what I see right now.  Most of titling happens with our supers.  We don’t really have a set of rules for how we refer to people in scripts.  What about “Rev.” for clergy?  How about “Capt.” for police or military officers?  These are all questions worth asking.  And as I always like to point out, the incoming generation of millennial reporters and producers likes to have rules and regulations to follow.  This may be the time to check on the way you refer to people on air, try to put yourself in the place of your viewers listening to those courtesy titles, and start putting some rules down on paper.

Once I finish that work, it’s probably time for another appointment with Jeff.  Maybe I’ll call him that this time.  Or maybe it’s time he start calling me “Doctor.”

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