According to a national poll released this morning from CBS News and The New York Times, Ben Carson has surged ahead to become the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Carson now has the support of 26 percent of Republican primary voters, four percentage points ahead of Donald Trump.

That’s quite an accomplishment for what initially was considered a very longshot candidacy. Some might suggest it merits a modicum of respect – say, by referring to the longtime director of pediatric neurosurgery at the nation’s premier teaching hospital (Johns Hopkins) with the well-deserved title “Dr.”

Yet in the pages of the Times itself, more often than not, Carson isn’t identified that way. In fact, thumbnail analysis I just did of Times stories using the media tracking service Nexis shows that Second Lady Jill Biden (who in 2007 received a doctor of education degree, or Ed.D., from the University of Delaware) is more than three times more likely to be called “Dr.” by The New York Times as Carson is.

Through last night, Nexis results show Ben Carson’s name has appeared in The New York Times 373 times: 356 times as Ben Carson and 17 times as Benjamin Carson. On first reference (that is, the first time he is named in the story) he has been referred to as “Dr. Ben Carson” or “Dr. Benjamin Carson” 32 times, plus an additional 13 times on second reference. He’s been called “Mr. Carson” on second reference 57 times.

By contrast, Jill Biden’s name has appeared 61 times. Seven of those times, she was referred to as “Dr. Jill Biden” on first reference and another seven times on second reference. Only twice has she been called “Mrs. Biden” on second reference. (The Times has never referred to her as “Ms. Biden,” so it isn’t simply a matter of preferring a less patriarchal terminology.)

Comparing those head-to-head, Ben Carson has been called “Dr.” in 12.1 percent of the Times stories in which his name appears. Jill Biden has been called “Dr.” in 23.0 percent of the stories in which her name appears. Ben Carson has been called “Mr. Carson” in 15.3 percent of the stories in which his name appears. Jill Biden is called “Mrs. Biden” in just 3.3 percent of the stories in which her name appears.

The contrast is even starker on New York Times blogs, which are more informal and thus should have less need for honorifics at all. Jill Biden’s name has appeared on Times blogs 58 times. She’s been called “Dr.” on first reference 28 times and then once more on second reference. She’s been called “Mrs. Biden” on second reference four other times.

Ben Carson’s name has appeared in Times blogs 191 times (five of them as “Benjamin Carson”). He’s been called “Dr.” on first reference 11 times and on second reference six other times. He’s been called “Mr. Carson” on second reference 66 times – including, most puzzlingly, twice when he was separately referred to as “Dr. Ben Carson.”

Thus, head-to-head, we see that Times blogs refer to Jill Biden as “Dr.” nearly half the time (48.3 percent) while referring to Ben Carson as “Dr.” just 8.9 percent of the time. She is called “Mrs. Biden” just 6.9 percent of the time, while he is called “Mr. Carson” 34.7 percent of the time.

Putting both the Times and the Times blogs together, you get graphics that look like this:

carson total


So there it is. Biden is three and a half times more likely to be called “Dr.” on first reference and twice as likely to be called “Dr.” on second reference as Ben Carson. Carson is four and a half times more likely to be called “Mr.” as Biden is to be called “Mrs.”

The simple – and, no doubt, at least partially accurate – explanation for these findings is political bias on the part of the notoriously liberal New York Times. A more sinister explanation could be inferred that Carson’s race played a role. Is there any other potential explanation?

Actually, there is, but to explain it requires getting a bit into the nuts and bolts of how journalists use “style.” The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law – sometimes dubbed “the bible of journalism” – sets the template for questions of grammar, punctuation and style for most, though not all, U.S. print publications. One very notable exception is, of course, The New York Times, which sets its own in-house style guidelines that deviate in a number of key respects from those of the AP.

To casual readers, the most notable difference is the Times‘ use of honorifics. Thus, if a John Smith were to be quoted multiple times in a story, the Associated Press would, after that first mention, refer to him simply as “Smith.” The New York Times will refer to him as “Mr. Smith.”

The style guidelines on honorifics also differ in whether and in what way one acknowledges courtesy titles, such as “doctor.” In the AP Stylebook, the entry reads:

Use Dr. in first reference as a formal title before the name of an individual who holds a doctor of dental surgery, doctor of medicine, doctor of optometry, doctor of osteopathic medicine, doctor of podiatric medicine, or doctor of veterinary medicine: Dr. Jonas Salk.

Later in the entry, the AP also notes that:

If appropriate in the context, Dr. also may be used on first reference before the names of individuals who hold other types of doctoral degrees. However, because the public frequently identifies Dr. only with physicians, care should be taken to ensure that the individual’s specialty is stated in first or second reference. 

And finally:

Do not continue the use of Dr. in subsequent references.

Though the entry does, in fact, permit the use of the title “Dr.” before the name of an individual with a doctorate (a point on which even many editors who enforce AP style sometimes are confused) it clearly discourages the practice. And with either type of doctor, the rule is equally clear that you do it just the first time you mention the person in the story.

For its part, The New York Times style guide offers this:

Dr. should be used in all references for physicians and dentists whose practice is their primary current occupation, or who work in a closely related field, like medical writing, research or pharmaceutical manufacturing: Dr. Alex E. Baranek; Dr. Baranek; the doctor. (Those who practice only incidentally, or not at all, should be called Mr., Ms., Miss or Mrs.)

Anyone else with an earned doctorate, like a Ph.D. degree, may request the title, but only if it is germane to the holder’s primary current occupation (academic, for example, or laboratory research). For a Ph.D., the title should appear only in second and later references.

Aye, there’s the rub. The “whose practice is their primary current occupation” bit is important, as Ben Carson formally retired as a neurosurgeon in July 2013. For any stories about him in the months since, during which he was first a motivational speaker and conservative activist and then – for the past six months – a declared candidate for president, it would be in keeping with Times style to refer to him as “Mr.” and not “Dr.”

But hold the phone just a moment. That doesn’t let the Times off the hook quite yet.

There is, first, the issue that the Times style guide explicitly commands that “[f]or a Ph.D., the title should appear only in second and later references.” Now, technically, Biden doesn’t even have a Ph.D.; she has an Ed.D. But leaving that aside, as the graphic above illustrates, she’s referred to as “Dr. Jill Biden” on first reference nearly one-third of the time that she’s mentioned in Times articles or blog posts, in direct contravention of the house rules.

Moreover, the honorific is supposed to be granted “only if it is germane to the holder’s primary current occupation.” Jill Biden is a retired teacher, just as Carson is a retired doctor. (She taught public high school for 13 years; she does continue as a professor at a community college in Virginia). Her “primary current occupation” almost certainly is serving as second lady, but one could (and Times writers and editors no doubt would) also point to her role as president of the Biden Breast Health Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to breast-cancer awareness. In neither role is her doctor of education degree terribly germane – at least, no more germane than mentioning that a particular CEO also holds a law degree or MBA, which the Times would almost never do.

Even if one is charitable about the many times she was referred to as “Dr. Jill Biden” in political and national desk stories where only her status as second lady was actually relevant, Biden has received the title on first reference in stories from the style desk, on the ArtsBeat blog and even on the Bats baseball blog. In none of these cases is her status as a doctor of education even remotely relevant.

Incidentally, our prior second lady, Lynne Cheney, holds a Ph.D. in British literature from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. By my count, her name has appeared in The New York Times or its blogs 293 times. She has been identified as “Dr.,” on either first or second reference, exactly zero times.

But what’s more, even if we confine the analysis solely to how the Times identified Carson before he retired, we still find the paper is more likely to signify that Jill Biden is a doctor:

carson 2013

For stories that appeared in the Times or Times blogs through July 2013, Carson was referred to as “Dr.” on either first or second reference 29.6 percent of the time. Jill Biden has been referred to as “Dr.” on either first or second reference 35.3 percent of the time.

That’s despite the fact that Carson, who first graced the pages of The New York Times in a September 1987 story about his successful separation of Siamese twins, would spend at least the next 25 years of his public life known only as a doctor, with no political profile at all.

Finally, I would like to add two other factors that I think likely have some explanatory power here:

  1. Many Times writers, knowing only that Jill Biden is somehow involved in breast-cancer issues, likely have the mistaken belief that she really is a medical doctor, and have just never bothered to investigate the matter.
  2. Many Times editors are just, quite frankly, pretty crappy about remembering and enforcing their own house rules.

Featured Publications