Tuesday, July 04, 2006
May I call you by your first name?
In one of the numerous memorable "Seinfeld" moments, Kramer asks Jerry whether he can borrow his bathing suit. "I don't know," Jerry responds. "That's a little familiar."

The way these headlines use first names feels a little familiar in that same vaguely uncomfortable fashion. American journalism prefers the use of last names in headlines and on second reference in stories. That convention indicates a sense of detachment and neutrality. It's a good thing.

These headlines, published in the same newspaper on successive days, are hardly proof of a trend, but they do illustrate the problem of getting too casual with people in the news. That tone may work in celebrity news or in sports, where readers recognize and accept the paper knowing someone on a first-name basis. In political coverage and other sorts of harder news, such labeling is too casual. It indicates a coziness with the person in the story that may be inappropriate.

In defense of the headline writers, the Limbaugh head is a tough one because it's in a one-column position, and "Rush" is certainly convenient in that spot. The headline count is more generous in the story about Newt Gingrich. Both headlines also suffer slightly from ambiguity: Are we talking about the band Rush? The amphibian Newt?

Headline writing requires some degree of compromise, but using the first names of news figures may be a deal we shouldn't make. Let's stick with surnames unless there's an overriding reason to do otherwise.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 9:32 AM | Permalink |