It’s Not Personal — Part I

I’m in my last week of working at the newspaper where I’ve been employed for more than a decade (both full and part time). Today I had two encounters with the public that reminded me of a truth many outside the newspaper business don’t understand: it’s not personal.

Though there are exceptions, reporters in small local markets rarely take aim at an individual, either to promote him or her or disgrace that person. We just do our jobs, reporting the facts, uncovering the background, sharing information so the public can understand.

And we try to do that consistently. The Associated Press publishes a style guide that most newspapers use as a starting point to establishing their own styles and policies. Of course, individual papers can follow or ignore AP recommendations on everything from how to write an address to military titles to whether to capitalize academic degrees. The book reads like a dictionary but it is something we refer to often, like when you need to know whether or not to abbreviate a reference to the state of Texas.

As the education reporter, I process a lot of briefs about students and adults in schools, from preschool to graduate school. These items are submitted by the public and I will hammer out these briefs to align with our newspaper’s style.

Today, a man came to see me who was upset that I removed the title “Dr.” before his name in the brief he submitted. AP Style recommends using Dr. only before someone with a medical degree; we have chosen to follow that recommendation. He felt  I personally was disregarding the many years he’d taken to earn that doctorate when I removed the title. I tried to explain it was our style. But for him, it was personal and he was angry.

I tried not to smile. I have written thousands of articles that have mentioned people with a doctorate and not once used the title in order to remain consistent with our style. It certainly wasn’t personal. He plans to come back and talk to my boss next week when he returns from vacation but I doubt he’ll win that battle. And in that case, again, it won’t be personal.

When I got back to my desk, I had an email from a woman who works at one of our school districts. She needed help getting her anniversary notice in the paper and I had simply forwarded it to the right person. I did almost nothing for her and it’s something I would do for anyone, even a stranger.

But she took the time to send me a very nice note, thanking me for my help. She felt like I’d given her special treatment, but really it wasn’t personal. It was just my job. I’m glad her anniversary notice ran, these kinds of item are the bread and butter of a small-town paper. But I treated her the same as anyone else.

It struck me as strange that within a period of 10 minutes, I had two readers assume I had made an issue personal, when in fact I hadn’t. Of course, I won’t lie, I enjoyed the latter experience much more than the former.


2 thoughts on “It’s Not Personal — Part I

  1. Regarding the AP style guide…I would submit that the style guide has changed over the years, impart due to suggestions made by the users. Consider suggesting they change their policy to include all doctors who have earned the right to be addressed as such by achieving their degrees.Just taking the imput from people without taking any time to consider their complaints in depth gives little thought to the time and courage it took them to contact you in the first place.

    • AP Style — and newspapers’ individual styles — absolutely do change over time, reacting to everything from reader feedback to pop culture. In this instance, I did recommend he speak to my managing editor because he would be the person who might actually make that change. My point in this blog post was that decisions like this aren’t personal. I know he took it personally based on how he treated me, but if my editor had come back and changed the policy, I would have been just fine with that, too.

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