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

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael says:

    How exactly do you enforce such a policy, especially across a news organization as big the NY Times? Do you even want to strictly enforce something like that, or leave it up to report/editor discretion?

    I mean, I could whip up a perl script that used a pre-defined list of names of important people, and flagged every occurrence in an article, under a variety of formats, for specific review, but that doesn’t solve the problem, it just makes it easer to follow the current lack-luster solution.