News next: a journalism teacher's diary

November 8, 2011

Names are news: spell them right

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 2:59 pm
Tags: , , ,

There are journalism teachers who give an automatic F to any student who misspells a name. I’m not quite that much of a hardass, but I did lower the grade of a student who misspelled the name of her subject in a profile, and I was distressed to see another student get the name of the main spokesman for an organization he was writing about wrong, even though he had it in front of him in black and white.

“Getting people’s names right is one of the most basic tasks of reporting and editing.” I didn’t say that; a New York Times editor did. So far this year, writes Philip B. Corbett on the Times Topics blog, The Times has published 2,800 corrections, and 480 of them have involved people’s names. He adds:

And every time we get a name wrong, we chip away at The Times’s credibility in the eyes of readers. It’s embarrassing when we misspell well-known names. Even worse is misspelling the names of ordinary people who may appear in The Times only once. Their moment in the spotlight is spoiled, and they’re likely to tell everyone they know that The Times can’t get its facts straight.

Here are some of Corbett’s tips for getting names right:

  •  In every interview, ask the subject to spell his or her name.
  • If you use another source, online or elsewhere, be sure it’s reliable. (Don’t take a Google poll and go with the spelling that gets the most hits.)
  •  Don’t just check how [The Times] spelled the name last time — [its] archive is, among other things, a minefield of past errors.
  • Watch out for names with common variants — Stephen and Steven, O’Neil and O’Neill and O’Neal.

And a couple more tips from me:

  • If you’re at a meeting where there’s a sign-up list for speakers or an athletic event where there’s a lineup card or roster take a picture of it.
  • If you’re handwriting is awful or you’re a little bit dyslexic, hand your notebook to the person you’re interviewing and ask him (or her) to print his name.
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