Darren Richardson

Dec. 5, 2012

This Allvoices Writers’ Resources installment zeroes in on one of the most common issues among Allvoices writers: How to properly identify the individuals discussed in a report.

In Journalism 101, aspiring writers learn about the “first reference” very early on. A first reference is exactly what it sounds like: It is the point in the story where a person's name first appears. For example, if I were writing a story about Mitt Romney winning a Powerball lottery jackpot, I might open it like this:

For Mitt Romney, losing the November election to President Barack Obama put him in the right place at the right time to win what some might consider a bigger prize: The $999 million Powerball jackpot.

Romney said he decided to buy a ticket on a whim while shopping Tuesday at a 7-Eleven on the outskirts of Boston, where he had stopped to stock up on Twinkies after hearing radio personality Rush Limbaugh blame Obama for the demise of the popular snack cakes.

Good for Romney. But who is this Romney guy, anyway? Readers have short memories and, in the digital age, can be from anywhere in the world. Oftentimes, a first reference contains identifying information, which is fine. Identifying Limbaugh as a radio personality in the sentence above is a good example of how to do this smoothly. But sometimes adding that information on the first reference is awkward. In those cases, it can be added later. We'll get back to that shortly.

For now, notice that the first name, Mitt, does not reappear the second time Romney is mentioned; also, Obama loses his first name and the title of president on second reference. After mentioning the full name and relevant titles once, you almost never need to repeat them.

The exceptions to this are with children 15 and younger, who are usually referred to by first names on second reference, and instances when leaving out the first name would cause confusion. If Ann Romney had been with her husband during that Twinkie-buying spree at 7-Eleven, and the story referred to both Romneys on multiple occasions, it would make sense to add their first names on some references to avoid confusion.

Speaking of Ann Romney, she is the perfect example of how easy it is to find the correct spelling of a name. During the campaign, some writers referred to her as "Anne" Romney. Most name-spelling issues can be solved with a quick Internet search. The correct spelling of Ann Romney's name, for example, could have been found on Mitt Romney's campaign website or in stories by such well-staffed news outlets as Fox, CNN, The New York Times, The Associated Press and Reuters. When in doubt, check a name against a source you can trust to have it spelled correctly.

Unless you’re dealing with a name that has a disputed spelling, as in the case of some key Middle Eastern players, finding the correct spelling usually can be accomplished in just one search. In the case of multiple common spellings of the same name, be consistent (do not use Mohamed Morsi on first reference and Mursi on the second, for example). An Allvoices editor will change it and notify the writer of the preferred spelling in those instances.

Back to Mitt Romney and his lucky lottery purchase, readers did see his full name on first reference, but at some point the writer needs to remind readers just who this Romney fellow is. Look for the next opportunity to insert that information without taking the reader out of the story's flow.

“I was listening to Rush talk about Twinkies as I was driving toward the 7-Eleven,” Romney said, “and I decided I really wanted some Twinkies. I told the clerk to go to the stock room and get me a whole case. When she got back and I was paying for the Twinkies, I had a sudden impulse to buy a Powerball ticket. I guess you could say I got lucky.”

Romney, the 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee and former Massachusetts governor, laughed about his good luck. “I don’t really need the money,” he chuckled, “but I do deserve it. I will now do my darnedest to prevent President Obama from taxing my rightful winnings.”

It would have been awkward to insert identifying information with the first quote, but notice how easy it was to insert it before the second quote. Also notice how Romney referred to “Rush" and “President Obama,” not “Limbaugh” and “Obama,” even though Obama's and Limbaugh’s full names were mentioned earlier. That’s because what is said in direct quotes supersedes style rules on references and titles. But if I had decided to paraphrase Romney, the correct way would have been as follows:

Romney said he had been driving past 7-Eleven, listening to Limbaugh talk about Twinkies, when he got the urge to buy some of the popular snack cakes. He acted on a sudden impulse to buy the Powerball ticket as he was purchasing a case of Twinkies. As for his lottery winnings, Romney said he would do his best to prevent Obama from taxing the money.

To summarize, remember that first references include formal titles (when applicable and not awkward), first names and last names (President Barack Obama, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Rep. Barbara Lee, Dr. Joe Schmoe). On subsequent references, the last names will suffice (Obama, Rice, Sotomayor, Lee, Schmoe) unless the exceptions mentioned earlier come into play.

If you have any questions related to this column, please share them in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer them.

Additional Allvoices Writers’ Resources reports:

"How to handle excerpts," Nov. 30, 2012

"Select Media guidelines help writers maintain high editorial standards," July 25, 2012

"Ideas, topics and surfing the beat," May 31, 2012

"When citing information from TV, specificity and accuracy are crucial," April 24, 2012

"Better tags for better page views," Feb. 12, 2012

"5 tips for American Pundit writers," Jan. 20, 2012

"Commenting on other reports builds community, leads to additional interest in your work," Dec. 31, 2011

"Linking to sources improves reliability of your reports," Nov. 30, 2011

"Write better headlines, get more readers for your reports," Nov. 22, 2011