Star public editor: Who should be called “Dr.”?

By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

Who is entitled to the title of Dr. in the pages of the Toronto Star?

Should a doctor of medicine (MD) always be referred to as “Dr.?” What about a dentist, a veterinarian, an optometrist, a podiatrist?

By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

Who is entitled to the title of Dr. in the pages of the Toronto Star?

Should a doctor of medicine (MD) always be referred to as “Dr.?” What about a dentist, a veterinarian, an optometrist, a podiatrist?

And consider those academics who slogged years to earn a doctorate: Should the Star refer to those highly accomplished people as “Dr.”?

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I wish I could tell you there is a simple prescription for clarity regarding how these hard-won credentials and titles are presented in the Star.

But having waded into this question to respond to a reader who holds a doctorate of education and was miffed that the Star dropped the “Dr.” title from his recently published letter to the editor, I’ve learned this is a confusing and somewhat touchy subject.

According to the Star’s style guidelines, “Dr.” is reserved for MDs, dentists and veterinarians. But here’s where it gets confusing: The Star’s usage rule on “Dr.” differs from the stylebook of The Canadian Press, which, with only a few exceptions, is the generally accepted arbiter of style and usage for the Star (and most other Canadian newspapers).

The Canadian Press decrees that Dr. be used for all licensed health-care professionals. In Ontario, that includes MDs, dentists, veterinarians, as well as chiropractors, psychologists, optometrists and podiatrists.

This arbitrary distinction on which health-care professionals get the “Dr.” title was determined by the Star’s newsroom style committee for reasons I don’t clearly understand. Here, I can see why those other professionals — and readers — would be confused.

The Star and CP do agree that, when applicable, “Dr.” should only be included when relevant to the subject at hand. For example, when writing about Eric Hoskins, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Employment and also an MD, proper style would be to refer to him as Dr. Hoskins only if the story relates to health or medicine.

The style guidelines of both the Star and The Canadian Press also agree on the touchiest aspect of this matter: the decree that “Dr.” should not be used for people with doctorates.

Not surprisingly, this is a sensitive issue for those who have earned the highest degree in their fields of study and feel entitled to the title of Dr.

“I am puzzled as to the reason that only MDs are allowed the privilege of having their proper titles published,” said the reader who had questioned why his “professional designation of Dr. (Education)” was omitted from his recently published letter.

While I am not identifying him here, the man provided his full name and also identified himself as a retired elementary school principal. He contends that the Star’s style stricture “gives MDs a preferred status in comparison to other professions without reason.”

“Can you explain what is so special about medical qualifications that lead them to be so highly recognized?” he said.

To complicate matters, in some of this man’s previously published letters he was identified as “Dr.” This would seem to indicate a measure of confusion within the Star itself regarding proper usage of the “Dr.” honorific. Given the various considerations, I understand why some might be confused.

For my part, I think published letters should indeed include academic distinctions — but only when relevant to the subject. The point is to provide readers with information to help them assess the writer’s views. Just as in news stories, readers should be told when subjects hold degrees and qualifications relevant to the subject at hand.

In the case of this educator who complained about his dropped title, when the Star publishes his letters about education matters, I think including the “Ed.D.” distinction following his name would be more useful than the generic “Dr.” before his name that, when used, likely caused some readers to believe he is a physician.

Certainly this aggrieved reader is not the first academic to make the case that the Star’s style policy regarding the use of the “Dr.” title is unfair and discriminatory.

Those who debate and decree newspaper “style” — the guidelines intended to ensure some consistency of language and usage in published content — have given considerable thought to this question.

James McCarten, current editor of The Canadian Press Stylebook, told me the rule governing the use of “Dr.” as it pertains to those with higher degrees exists to ensure clarity for readers.

“Put simply, if everyone with a doctorate was described as a Dr., it would lead to confusion among readers, for whom it is generally accepted that the honorific ‘Dr.’ refers to a health-care professional.

“You have to draw the line somewhere, so we choose to draw it where we feel it makes the most sense for readers,” he said.

To continue reading this column, please go the where it was originally published. 

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