Reminder: Whether To Go With ‘First-Name-Only’ Needs To Be Discussed And Explained

There’s been a flurry of appeals to the Standards & Practices editor and the DMEs in recent weeks about identifying someone we’ve spoken to by a first name only.

At least once, a first-name-only got on the air without being discussed with either the DMEs or that S&P scold.

There’s not really a distinction between a first-name-only and anonymity. So this passage from our guidelines applies:

“If a reporter and editor know ahead of time that a key interview can only be done if the source is granted anonymity, they must have a conversation in advance with a senior editor and make the case for granting it.”

Senior editor = a supervising senior editor, a DME or the Standards & Practices noodge. Senior supervising editors  can weigh the issues and make the call on this. They should then flag the decision to the DMEs and the S&P. That way the DMEs and S&P can raise concerns if needed, but just as importantly can keep a handle on how often this is  happening across the desks and shows.

Another important set of words in that passage: “key interview.” (Note: We realize that sometimes it isn’t known ahead of time that a person won’t want us to use a full name. In that case, the discussion about whether to use information from that interview will obviously happen afterward.)

We should be very sparing in our granting of such status and the appearance of first-name-onlys in our reports. Listeners and readers expect us to identify the people we interview. Among the questions to consider:

– Is the person going to be in danger if we use a full name?

– Is the subject sensitive and among those that could come back to haunt the person because the story will live on the Web forever?

– How hard have we tried to get others with equally good stories who have no problem with the use of their full names?

If after a discussion it’s decided that we should grant first-name-only (or anonymous) status, then we have to agree on the language that tells listeners and readers why we’re doing that. We should always explain why someone isn’t being fully identified. It might be because:

– She fears retribution from police.

– He’s concerned his chronic condition could make employers wary of hiring him.

– Her family doesn’t know about what happened.

– He would only discuss his medical condition if his full name was withheld.

You get the idea. It’s also the case that:

“NPR does not name individuals who are the alleged victims of sexual assaults. There are exceptions at times – such as certain instances when such an individual goes public with his/her identity – and NPR editors will judge these instances on a case-by-case basis.”

Related reminders from the handbook:

No offers. “Occasionally in the course of our reporting, a source will agree to share information only if it’s not attributed to him or her. Journalists should use their good judgment to determine whether the information merits such a decision. However, we do not begin our quest for interviews by promising to keep a source anonymous or off the record. Our goal is to get as much information as possible on the record.”

No pseudonyms. “When we decide to withhold a source’s name from a story, we don’t invent a pseudonym for that source. Again, our job is to present factual — not fabricated — information.”

(Memmos; Aug. 28, 2014)

August 28, 2014

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