News outlets split on second reference for Kavanaugh accuser

September 18, 2018

News outlets scrambling to cover the latest turn in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have been all over the place on one particular aspect of the story: What should the 51-year-old accuser, research psychologist Christine Blasey Ford, be called on second reference? Ford? Dr. Ford? Blasey? Dr. Blasey? Blasey Ford?

The Washington Post, which broke the story, refers to the accuser as “Ford” on second reference, as do the AP, NPR and Los Angeles Times, among others. The New York Times uses “Dr. Blasey.” The Mercury News and several Bay Area broadcast outlets use Blasey Ford, although the San Francisco Chronicle used Ford.

The decision might have outsized importance. Respect for the name and dignity of the accuser is essential, Anita Hill wrote in an NYT op-ed Tuesday. “Dr. Blasey is a human being with a life of her own. She deserves the respect of being addressed and treated as a whole person.”

Each outlet has its reasons for the differing choices.

The Post’s Brian Cleveland, who oversees the newspaper’s style, said “Ford” on second reference was the preference the source gave to reporter Emma Brown in breaking her silence.

The NYT’s standards editor, Phil Corbett, said a Washington editor relayed the source’s preference of “Dr. Blasey,” which is used in a professional context. The Times, before speaking with the accuser, had used “Ms. Ford” on second reference. The Times has kept the honorific “Dr.” because the source is both a psychologist and an academic, Corbett said. (The AP reserves the honorific for medical doctors).

The Mercury News took the Solomonic route on the accuser’s second reference, using Blasey Ford. The newspaper had not spoken to her, so it accepted — in part — The Post’s decision on “Ford.”

“However, we are a Bay Area paper,” managing editor Bert Robinson said. “And her profile in the Bay Area is all Blasey — that's what she uses at work, and in her publications, and it's how she identified herself to our reporter when we interviewed her for a story on the science march months back.

“So rather than make a choice between the two, we decided to go with Blasey Ford,” Robinson said. The decision also erased the worry, as he put it, that a reader would lose track of the name in the middle of the story.

Corbett also acknowledged that it might be confusing to use her married name, Christine Blasey Ford, on first reference and “Dr. Blasey” on other references, but The Times used that first reference before speaking with her and wanted to be consistent there.

“There are plenty of people who continue to use their original surname professionally, even if they use a married name in some contexts, so it is our normal practice to follow her preference,” Corbett said.

Personal preferences often are a key determinant in settling thorny cases. The AP famously used signed letters from a Libyan leader to determine his preference for this spelling of his name: Moammar Gadhafi.