Columnists > Soul Food

Goodbye to mistery

Reporting an error, a stylistic change, and a big blunder

Issue: "Katie can't bar the door," July 15, 2006

A woman in Rolesville, N.C., recently wrote, "I will not be renewing because one of your articles said 'The APOSTLE Luke.' Luke was a Gentile physician and NOT one of the twelve."

Who could have made such a blunder? It was me. March 11. I wrote it. I know Luke wasn't an apostle. I was probably thinking about the apostle Paul. That's no excuse. Dumb. Idiot.

Oh well, at least you see our style: Admit blunders. No cover-ups. When Winston Churchill (who was not an apostle) stayed at the White House during World War II and was taking a bath, Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair knocked on the door. Churchill's bodyguard opened it and remembered FDR looking "curiously beyond me." The bodyguard turned around to see Churchill standing there naked and saying, "Mr. President, I have nothing to hide."

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Nor do we at WORLD. We keep track of the corrections we make at the end of our Mailbag pages when we get something wrong. We made 60 corrections from July 2004 through June 2005. That's 60 mistakes too many. More than one every issue.

Given our tiny staff and all the news/editorial pages we publish, more than 1,500 per year, it could be worse: The New York Times, with many more pages but an enormous staff, had 84 corrections in the last week of June alone. Still, we have tried this past year to do better, and maybe the effort has paid off: Our Mailbag editor counted 45 corrections for the publishing year that ended last month, a 25 percent reduction.

Well, 45 plus one: "the apostle Luke." Ugh. Sorry. If we're going to use a title, we need to get it right.

Which leads me to a change that diligent long-term readers may already have noticed in this issue: We're finally giving up courtesy titles (example: Mr.) as just about every publication other than The New York Times has done.

Our practice has been to use a person's full name upon first mention, along with (when relevant) a title of office: for example, Justice Antonin Scalia. On subsequent references we have simply called him Mr. Scalia. We have used Dr. for medical doctors only, except that we've referred to Dr. Dobson and Dr. Laura because those are the names they are known by. For lots of reasons we have dropped courtesy titles when the person referred to is dead. ("That's Mr. Chaucer to you" sounds weird.)

This seems simple, but in practice complications have continually arisen. Sometimes people have thought we were being discourteous when we referred to the president merely as Mr. Bush, to a great evangelist as Mr. Graham rather than Rev., and to a Ph.D. holder as Mr. We've had to dance around Mrs., Miss, and Ms. We find ourselves regularly making exceptions to avoid awkwardness. And a couple of interns have asked why, since I emphasize tight writing, we're adding an extra word each time we report a name. For space reasons we've already eliminated courtesy titles from headlines and captions.

The New York Times has faced similar nuances but has retained courtesy titles to promote an air of gentility. That attempt also gives us pause: Might courtesy titles, for the Times and ourselves, be a crutch? No matter what we're opposing, shouldn't we always be respectful of others? We need to work hard to make the content of our stories, not a superficial stylistic usage, convey the truth that we're all made in God's image.

So, beginning with this issue, the courtesy titles are gone. We do hope that courtesy will remain, and thoughtfulness as well. Which brings my loopy brain back around to Winston Churchill's naked exuberance. Of course he hid some molehills from Franklin Roosevelt, as diplomatic historians have noted, and he and FDR hid mountains-including the D-Day invasion site-from Hitler. Nor did U.S. journalists give aid and comfort to the Nazis.

Why, then, did The New York Times late in June help al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorists by giving away how the Department of the Treasury works with international banks to track our enemies' money flow? I pray that Times editor Bill Keller does not style himself as the apostle Keller whose mission it is to bring peace (at any price) to the world. We, and our big newspaper colleagues, need the grace and the discernment to avoid blunders small and large.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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