No more Ms.-takes

By doing away with the arcane convention of courtesy titles for women, the Associated Press has finally joined the 20th, er, 21st century.

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Last weekend, as the press reported on Hillary Clinton’s official announcement of her bid for the New York Senate seat, the angle was this: No longer just the first lady, she has become candidate Clinton. As she made her announcement, the president sat silent and unmentioned behind her.

Followers of the New York race may have also noted a subtle but related shift in the coverage: Now, after the first reference in a story, Clinton is called simply Clinton, instead of Mrs. Clinton.

The change marks one of those little victories that speaks volumes. On Feb. 1, the Associated Press, the oldest and largest newsgathering organization in the world, finally decided to eliminate courtesy titles for women from its stories.

For outsiders, that doesn’t mean much. Few papers still use Miss, Ms. or Mrs. when identifying female sources. It’s a convention that belongs to another era — a pre-feminist time when a woman’s marital status cemented her place in society.

So it will come as a surprise to most that until this month, the Associated Press Stylebook, the newspaper industry’s bible for grammar, spelling and other niceties of the English language, still required reporters to ask women quoted in their stories if they were married.

The rule read, “Do not use Mr. in any reference unless it is combined with Mrs.” For example, Mr. and Mrs. John Smith or Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Yet mention a woman in an article, and the rule changed. “On news wires, use courtesy titles for women on second reference, following the woman’s preference. Use Ms. if a preference cannot be determined. If the woman says she does not want a courtesy title, refer to her on second reference by last name only.”

To the average reader, they’re only two- or three-letter words. And in fact, most of the roughly 1,549 newspapers or more than 4,500 broadcast outlets that use the AP’s wire service simply stripped out the titles when the stories arrived on their desks.

But for many of us who have worked for the AP, it was one of those internal battles that cropped up from time to time with no results — until now. In fact, my colleagues and I in the assorted California bureaus even went so far as to send a petition to AP President Louis Boccardi two years ago, asking that he do away with the arcane convention.

That skirmish started in December 1997 when Lillian Disney died. As best as I can remember (and as they say, memory is a lousy reporter), the reporter wrote the obituary, referring to her on second reference as simply, “Disney.”



We had all become accustomed to ignoring the courtesy title rule by then because none of the local papers used them.

But Mrs. Disney - as she was later called - was big news. So the editors kicked the story back, saying the reporter needed to refer to the late moviemaker’s widow with her proper courtesy title. It being breaking news, and the subject in question being dead and unable to speak for herself, the reporter inserted “Ms.” throughout and left it at that.

Apparently, someone was appalled to see the gentle-lady referred to as Ms., when she might well have preferred Mrs. in deference to her late husband.

That prompted a companywide edict that, although many of us had been ignoring it, the courtesy title rule was still in effect and still to be followed. Henceforth, we were to ask all female sources if they preferred to be called Miss, Ms. or Mrs.

That was hard to swing without in some way asking a source if she was married.

Many of us were offended. We felt it was an outdated, sexist policy that even raised questions of safety. Some women didn’t want to be identified as single for fear that a reader could eventually stalk them.

What’s more, it was unevenly applied. Courtesy titles were not used in the sports section. Were we to take that to imply that female athletes were somehow not fully female?

Plain and simple, it was a double standard.

Not too long ago, we pointed out in our petition, news stories about women routinely included gratuitous descriptions of their appearance and dress, and crime stories commonly identified defendants by race or ethnicity. These practices were abandoned when public consciousness changed and newsrooms began to diversify. “This policy should meet the same fate,” we wrote.

The response from Boccardi was that several hundred newspapers that subscribed to the wire, most notably the New York Times, still used them. (The Times actually uses the titles for both men and women.) Bottom line, it was easier for the large majority of newspaper editors to take out those three little words than for the New York Times and others to chase down every female source we quoted to find out if she was married whenever one of them wanted to use an AP story.

So we started asking The Question.

Imagine conducting an interview with a high-powered expert in her field, then getting to the final moment:

Reporter: “OK, now remind me your formal name and proper spelling. That’s Sally Smith, right? Oh, I see, it’s spelled “S-A-L-L-I. OK.

“Oh, your last name is S-M-Y-T-H-E.

“OK, and do you prefer Miss, Ms. or Mrs.?”

Long silence on the other end. “Excuse me?”

Reporter: “As in, are you married? Are you Miss Smythe, Ms. Smythe or Mrs. Smythe?”

Source: “I don’t see why that’s anybody’s business. We’re talking about [fill in the blank - foreign policy, world economics, a multi-billion-dollar merger]. Why does anybody care if I’m married?”

Reporter: “Gosh, I apologize, but we have to ask. It’s AP style that on second reference … ”

As with most large organizations, the brouhaha simmered down after a week or two and we blithely went about our business without asking The Question.

So it was with satisfaction that, two years after having left the AP, I read this month that the policy had finally changed.

According to the company release, “The Associated Press is dropping the use of the courtesy titles Miss, Mrs. and Ms. in almost all of its news reports, adopting the same style for references to women as for men.”

In this post-feminist age, journalism still has some catching up to do, though. More pervasive problems still exist in the way the press covers women, especially those in public office. A report released in October by the Washington-based Women’s Leadership Fund found that political reporting tended to highlight the positions and records of male candidates more often than those of female candidates, and that the personality, appearance and family lives of women were covered signficantly more often than those same aspects of men’s lives.

But considering that the Associated Press Stylebook sets the standard for an entire industry that reaches millions of readers every day, this one small change is a big symbolic victory.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Karyn Hunt is a former AP staffer who worked in the San Francisco bureau from 1993 to 1998. She currently works in the Business Development department at Salon.com.

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