What's in a name?

February 7, 2013 01:30

By Vince Duffy, RTDNA Chairman

What’s in a name? Respect….that’s what.

How to address people can be a tricky business. We all want to be friendly, but we don’t want to insult someone or seem disrespectful.

Sometimes it’s easy.

Imagine, for example, you’re at the Excellence in Journalism conference, and you see Tom Brokaw drop something. How do you get his attention? Easy - you say, “Excuse me Mr. Brokaw, did you drop this?”

A few minutes later, you meet a student from a university in your home state who introduces herself as “Jessica Jones.” Without a second thought you say, “Nice to meet you, Jessica.”

Then at the end of an interesting break-out session, you want to ask the speaker a question as she’s walking past to leave the room. How do you address her? Do you call her by her first name? Her last name? Do you say Mrs.?

When we write our news copy, we should never run into this confusion.

We all learned the rule early in our career:  Every adult in our news stories should always be referred to on second reference by their last name, not their first. Exceptions can be made if the story includes multiple family members, where only using last names will create confusion, or if the individual is universally known only by a first name (Beyonce, Madonna, Elvis).

I hear this rule being broken all the time. It’s broken in the newscasts produced at my shop and all the others in my market. (I would probably hear it broken in your newscasts too.)

Many of you will say you’re just trying to be friendly and conversational, working to present your sources in a more intimate and approachable light.

That may be true, but what bugs me is that many media outlets are not breaking the rule indiscriminately.

The newscasts I hear and watch still have a tendency to always show respect to white males and professional women by calling them by their last name on second reference, but neglecting to show the same respect to women, minorities, and young adults. We also frequently use only first names for sources we have grown comfortable with through our reporting, believe are sympathetic, or (unconsciously) feel don’t require respect.

I doubt it’s intended, but this is very disrespectful. It’s as if we culturally decide some sources don’t merit being treated in the same manner as other, more powerful individuals.

I admit I’m also guilty of this. I live in the same culture as everyone else and don’t always catch that we will call the politician “Stabenow” on second reference, but call the single mom “Mary” in the same story. I’m working to change that.

My concern has not arisen because of a groundswell of audience complaints or comments. Our audience lives in the same culture we do, and most of them probably don’t notice it either, but we should do better.

This doesn’t mean we should NEVER refer to an adult by their first name, but when we do it should be discussed as to why we are doing it.

Here are the guidelines I’ve given my reporters and producers on this issue. Feel free to steal them if you want:

Adults in our stories will be called by their full name on first reference and by their last name on subsequent references in the story.

Exceptions include:   

a.      When more than one person in the story shares the same last name. (For example, a story on Bill and Hilary Clinton, or about an entire family.)
b.      When the source is universally identified by a first name or nickname. (Prince, Bono, Oprah.)
c.      When it can be argued that it really works best for stylistic reasons and has been approved by an editor. (I can imagine an intimate portrait of an individual or feature where it might work best to use the first name, but it should be a conscious decision by the reporter and approved by the editor.)

Does your newsroom have a similar policy? Tell us about it in the comments below.