Courtesy-title policy requires occasional explanation

Perrysburg readers Dave and Susan Dignam were among many people who were puzzled by something in The Blade’s coverage of an apparent dog fighting ring in Ida, Mich.

Two suspects, Willie Fletcher of Detroit and James Broome of Belleville, Mich., were both arraigned last month on felony dog-fighting charges in Monroe County District Court. But in stories about them, The Blade refers to one suspect on second reference as “Fletcher” and the other as “Mr. Broome.”

What was going on here? The Dignams — and other readers — noted from accompanying photographs that Mr. Broome happens to be white, while Fletcher is African-American.

Surely this wasn’t racism on the part of The Blade?

No, as odd as this looks, it isn’t. The Blade is one of the few newspapers in the nation that still uses courtesy titles for people in news stories. Men are Mr.; women, Mrs. Ms., or Miss, as they prefer. People who are medical doctors are Dr. (There are so many PhDs and other forms of doctorates these days, that the editors feel that to use the “Dr.” title for all of these would only add confusion.) Religious figures are supposed to get their courtesy titles when they are doing religious things; Jesse Jackson, for example, didn’t qualify as “the Rev.” when he was running for president.

But having a courtesy title is a privilege, and the editors don’t grant that privilege to someone who has been convicted of a felony, and that’s what has happened in this case.  While both men have to be presumed innocent until proven guilty of this crime, Fletcher has been convicted of a felony before.

My job as ombudsman is to monitor issues of fairness. I see nothing wrong with the newspaper having this policy — as long as it is consistently applied and occasionally explained to the readers.

Newspapers across the nation often tend to expect readers automatically understand why they do certain things, when the average reader, quite understandably, often doesn’t have a clue.

What I would suggest is that in stories of this kind The Blade drop a short insert into the story explaining the policy, especially when differences of race or gender might lead to misinterpretation.

● Speaking of race, Eric Horvath of Martin, Ohio, says he was surprised to see several persons on The Blade’s Most Wanted List whose race is listed as white, even though they have Hispanic-sounding surnames, such as Hernandez and Castaneda. There’s a good reason for that: Hispanic is not a race, but an ethnic or language group. There are both white and black Hispanics, as a glance at any major league baseball roster will show.

● Toledoan Matt Zaleski has a “beef with The Blade,” as the late longtime assistant to the publisher Bill Day used to put it.  And I think he’s got a good point. The front page on Monday, April 12, features an adorable picture of a 2-year-old girl fishing off an embankment over the Maumee River on a record warm Sunday afternoon.

Nothing wrong with that — except one fairly major thing: “What made my heart pound with fear was that the child was NOT wearing a life jacket that close to the water,” Mr. Zaleski said. “The picture was published the morning after a 4-year-old drowned in a family pond” elsewhere in Ohio, he noted.

“Parents, guardians, and those responsible for the safety of children must take the simple precaution of having a child wear a life jacket when they are anywhere near the water,” said Mr. Zaleski, who says he is a member of a yacht club where children under 12 have to wear life jackets anytime they are near the water.

Naturally, he is right. It wasn’t The Blade’s job to tell this child’s parents to put a life jacket on her. Nor should the paper necessarily have refused to publish it. But I think it would have been a good idea if the caption had commented on proper safety precautions.

This column was originally published in The Toledo Blade on April 17, 2011.

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