The guideline for using a person’s surname in a newspaper headline is fairly simple. If we have reason to believe that readers will instantly recognize that name, go ahead and use it. If not, use a description of that person.
An example: “Meeker” is fine for media in Raleigh in stories about the city’s mayor. But if hizzoner is mentioned outside the Triangle, “Raleigh mayor” is a better choice.
These rules change some for the Web, where many readers use proper names to arrive at stories through Google searches. To get them to our story rather than our competitor’s, use that name even if it’s only marginally known. First names may be handy here, too, where in print the last name usually suffices. (More on online headlines here.)
Of course, sometimes that surname may not conjure the correct person in the reader’s mind. Here are two examples today where that happened to me:
HEADLINE: McClaren works to reunite religions
PERSON INTENDED: Brian McClaren, leader in the “emergent church movement”
PERSON I THOUGHT OF: Malcolm McClaren, music impresario best known for the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols
HEADLINE: Palin emerges as potential McCain VP
PERSON INTENDED: Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska
PERSON I THOUGHT OF: Michael Palin, comedian and travel writer best known for his work with Monty Python
Recognition of surnames in headlines is, of course, colored by our own experiences and interests. Your household may know names that others don't. Sometimes the solution is to use the proper name and a description. That’s what the Los Angeles Times did with the Palin story on its home page: “McCain VP choice is Alaska's Palin.”