Newspaper Style Guides
Clark Hoyt, the NYT public editor, has an interesting column explaining the paper’s inconsistent use of courtesy titles, middle names, and the like. He insists, with strong credibility, that there is no political malice in referring to Sarah Palin as “Ms. Palin” vice “Mrs. Palin” or Condi Rice as “Ms. Rice” vice “Dr. Rice.” Similarly, there’s no hidden subtext in referring to “Barack Hussein Obama” in the lede of a particularly portentious piece.
What’s particularly interesting to me, though, as someone working to maintain editorial consistency on an institutional web site, is how inconsistent even the vaunted New York Times is. By Hoyt’s own admission, the paper has longstanding traditions and protocols for how it handles these matters but is very haphazard in actually following them. For example, they referred to “Barack Hussein Obama” for a big “Man in the News” piece out of custom: “The Times has long been partial to using the full names of important people — American presidents and presidential candidates, for instance — in the lead paragraphs of articles at significant moments in the news. Call it a drumroll or a bit of filigree.” Yet, they forgot about that custom the following week and merely referred to “John McCain” vice “John Sidney McCain III.”
In two stints as an editor for online journals, I’ve used the NYT as an informal style guide, especially for the spelling of foreign names. I thus endeavor to use “al Qaeda” in all cases rather than other variants, such as “al-Qaeda,” “al Qaida,” or “el-Qaida.” Similarly, I spell the first name of Russia’s new president as “Dmitri” rather than “Dmitry” and the first name of Georgia’s president as “Mikheil” while spelling the first name of the former Soviet premier as “Mikhail.”
Yet, the NYT doesn’t necessarily follow its own style guide on these matters, either. For example, a Google search turns up about 22,000 instances of Dmitri Medvedev and 22,500 for Dmitry Medvedev when doing a search limited to nytimes.com.