Three Thoughts About When It’s OK And Not OK To Use First Names On Second Reference

Highlights:

– NPR’s standard style is to use family names on second reference.
– There are some types of stories and projects in which exceptions can be made.
– Minors (15 or younger) are usually referred to by their first names on second reference.

On second reference, NPR’s standard style is to refer to someone by his or her family name. There have been several pieces in recent weeks, though, where we used first names on second reference. This is a good time to round up our guidance.

– First, the traditional position. The default setting for any of our news reports is simple: We use family names on second reference. That promotes clarity and helps us maintain an objective distance from those we report about.

We’ve previously discussed why one likely 2016 presidential contender is “Clinton,” not “Hillary” on second reference.  The reasons in that case apply to most newsmakers: “There’s the matter of respect … and we don’t want to be perceived as being either for or against someone because of the way we refer to him or her. Everyone is treated the same.”

– But, back in July we looked at the types of stories that seem to lend themselves to first-name-on-second-reference treatment.  They’re personal pieces in which someone is the emotional center of the story. This week, for instance, Carrie Johnson reported about Stephanie George — a nonviolent drug offender who was “coming home to a different life.”  Calling her Stephanie on second reference felt natural. (There was also the issue of the woman’s last name, which could have led some listeners to wonder “who’s George?” In addition, the others heard in the piece referred to her as “Stephanie.” There might have been confusion if Carrie had said “George.”)

As we also said in July, some platforms and projects that focus on being conversational have room to use first names on second reference — on their blogs, podcasts and NPR’s airwaves. Planet Money is an example. (The award-winning “Planet Money Makes A T-shirt” project, it should be noted, employed a few different ways to refer to people on second reference — by family names, by full names and by first names. The references sound right to this ear.)

Something to keep in mind: Using a first name might give the mistaken impression that the reporter has developed a bias, liking or sympathy for the subject. That could be a reason to use the family name instead. Editors and producers should consider that issue and discuss it with the deputy managing editors, their designated replacements or the Standards & Practices editor ahead of time if they have any doubts.

Then there are minors. The AP’s style is to “generally refer to them on second reference by surname if they are 16 or older and by first name if they are 15 or younger. Exceptions would be if they are involved in serious crimes or are athletes or entertainers.”

That guidance applied when Malala Yousafzai was shot in 2012.  She was 15 at the time and was “Malala” on second reference.

Two years later, should we still refer to her as “Malala?” That’s under discussion. For now, “Malala” remains OK even though that goes against the AP’s guidance (which the wire service isn’t following, by the way; it continues to call her “Malala”). One major reason not to change yet is that she’s known as “Malala” around the world.

Update: Of course, if your piece has several family  members in it, there’s probably not going to be any way around referring to them by their first names on second reference. Check out how Nina Totenberg handled one such story:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5236837

(Memmos; Dec. 17, 2014)

December 17, 2014

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