Sam: What’s the Best Way for Journalists to Refer to Sources in Stories?

At Dublin Inquirer our style is to refer to people in our articles by their full name the first time they appear, and by their surname on subsequent references.

It’s a pretty common newspaper style, used in English-language newspapers around the world.

So I was surprised when I saw someone who’d been interviewed in one of our articles commenting under a Facebook post of the article, saying it was disrespectful that we’d referred to her by only her surname.

And then it came up again. A woman who’d been good enough to speak to one of our reporters for an article read it and told the reporter it was disrespectful she’d been called by her surname.

So why do we refer to people this way, how do other publications refer to people in their articles, and should we make changes or exceptions?

Why We Do It

I started off working as a journalist in the US 20 years ago, at a newspaper that used the Associated Press (AP) style. That meant full name first, surname thereafter.

This, to me, seems more respectful than calling someone by their first name on second and subsequent references. That feels overly familiar.

The AP style was used for everyone equally, from a maths teacher at a school in the city of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, right on down even to the likes of the president of the United States.

After all, it would not be fair to call the teacher by their full name and then surname, and then refer to the president by first name only, even if you think he doesn’t warrant as much respect.

This is not just an American style for referencing people either. Or, if it was, it has spread. It’s the style generally used at the Guardian. And it is used here in Ireland by the Journal, among others.

It’s less stuffy than the style seen in the New York Times or Irish Times of calling people by their full name first, and an honorific (Mr, Ms, Mrs, etc) plus their surname thereafter. It also avoids enforcing a gender binary, or deciding whether to signal women’s marital status.

While the intention might be to show respect, and to treat everyone equally, calling someone by their surname alone is a strange convention, not used much outside of the media.

So for someone unused to reading newspapers, or appearing in them, I can see how it might be jarring.

Making Exceptions

Most publications have exceptions to their style for how to name people, whether it includes using honorifics or not.

For example, children are generally called by their first name on second and subsequent references. When writing about multiple people with the same surname, first names would be used as well to avoid confusion, or having to repeat full names throughout.

And, in fact, the AP style includes the exception “unless an individual requests otherwise”.

Different styles might also be required when referring to people from countries with naming conventions different to those common in the English-speaking world.

I suppose one way of making sure that everyone is satisfied with how they are being referred to is to ask them. But this is not always possible.

Sometimes we write about people who appear in reports or other documents, without being able to interview them, so we wouldn’t have the opportunity to ask about this. Others, interviews are too brief, or not friendly enough, to get into this sort of thing.

Not only that, but readers might see us referring to one person by their first name, and another with an honorific and their last name and think we are showing one less respect, and wonder why – not realising that each had asked to be referred to that way.

In the end, I think there’s no perfect solution. Most people will be fine with whatever system, most of the time. And a few will be bothered by whatever system, some of the time.

But I’d be interested to hear your views on our current style, and how you might suggest changing it.

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Sam Tranum: Sam Tranum is co-founder of Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Francis Foyle
at 24 June 2020 at 10:43

Am afraid it’s stating the obvious to commend this article - in which the obvious was stated - but this sort of context is worth giving and it’d be good to see further education along these lines. Participatory journalism can lead to casual terminology or awkwardly formal phrasing, both of which can distract from the point being made. Awareness of the reasoning behind a newspaper’s house style may be confined to a smallish group of professionals or journalism hobbyists, as it were. Teasing terms out may reassure those named that it was respectful, plus encourage more readers to contribute. Separately - or maybe not - when reading this and earlier DI articles I reminded of the final series of The Wire, in which the nature of journalism was treated. I think your work has great value and am grateful that you’re continuing.

John Burns
at 24 June 2020 at 14:19

Interesting piece, um, Tranum. In the Sunday Times we use the same system as yourselves - no honorifics. We regularly get complaints from readers, however, particularly if recently deceased people are referred to by their surname. We do sometimes make exceptions in those cases, particularly for young tragic deaths, when we might use first name only. Burns

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