AP Stylebook? I don't need no AP Stylebook.
June 29, 2007 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Journalistic standards aside, should I use my subject's first or last name in a magazine profile?

I write and edit a college magazine and I'm working on an alumni profile for the upcoming issue.

Throughout the first draft of the piece, I've referred to the subject by her first name (as in "Mary is the vice president of blah blah" rather than "Jones is the president of blah blah").

I know that goes against AP style and "real" journalism, but part of me wants our magazine to be informal and approachable. It's not the NYT. On the other hand, I want the magazine to be a good reflection on the school. I also want to be respectful of my interview subject and I'm wondering if I just think of her as "Mary" because we are acquaintances outside of the interviewer/subject relationship. (I'm also checking myself on the whole "Hilary" factor and hoping I'm not calling her "Mary" just because she's a woman.)

What perhaps further complicates the situation is that the profile also discusses her brother, who is kind of famous to the point where he would be known to many by his first name, and her husband, who shares her last name and also has some public recognition. So in one article there would be references to Mary Smith Jones, her brother Gary Smith (but he's just "Gary," no last name required) and her husband Tommy Jones. It seemed less confusing to the reader to use first names, but I also don't want us to look like a hick rag.

Your thoughts? My email's in my profile if you'd like to contact me offline.
posted by SashaPT to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Does this person KNOW you are writing an article about her? You should not use anyone's real name without their permission or at least a heads up, it's not cool. There might be possible legal ramifications for you and the paper if she is unhappy with the article or feels any possible slander.
posted by miss lynnster at 4:27 AM on June 29, 2007

The AP holds no monopoly on good, readable style, and in fact frequently doesn't demonstrate it at all. First names are fine in this context, though I agree you should take care to use the same style for men and women. That said, the first mention in an article of someone who has public recognition should always be that person's name in full, I'd say, so Gary Smith should be "the tennis player Gary Smith", or something like that, on first mention.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 4:33 AM on June 29, 2007

Response by poster: miss lynnster, yes, she does know and I am giving her a courtesy review as well. (The last thing I need is an unhappy potential donor.)
posted by SashaPT at 4:36 AM on June 29, 2007

I write for a real newspaper (altho' I'm in Australia, so we don't use AP style) and I've written for a travel mag and written and subbed at a glossy lifestyle magazine.

I'd use her first name - that's fine for a light feature / profile, especially if it's in the interests of clarity.

And start your own style book! Seriously - it'll be such a help to you if you outline, A - Z, points where you differ from AP.

So, under N - Names, you'd explain when it's OK to refer to sources / subjects by their first name (features) and where you'd use their last name (hard news). Or whatever you decide.

You might like to have a look at a few online ones to get the idea.

Here's the Guardian's and here's the Economist's.

Is that bit about alphabetising your style book over obvious? I'm not sure if that's how AP does it... if not, it really is a good (eaaaasy) way to go about it.
posted by t0astie at 4:54 AM on June 29, 2007

Ooh-- I do believe I've found an error in the Economist's style book.

Bale: in boats and in the hayfield, yes, otherwise bail, bail out.

Unless this is some sort of Britishism. Still, I've mailed them about it.
posted by alexei at 5:22 AM on June 29, 2007

I'm also checking myself on the whole "Hilary" factor and hoping I'm not calling her "Mary" just because she's a woman.

If you wrote a similar story about, say, a day in the life of the university's president, would you call him John throughout? Not a rhetorical question. If you make a clear policy on this for your stylebook, you could easily refer to it if others ask the same thing.
posted by grouse at 5:26 AM on June 29, 2007

I do believe I've found an error in the Economist's style book.

You really should have checked a British English dictionary first. You haven't.

posted by grouse at 5:28 AM on June 29, 2007

call the primary subject by her last name. call the secondary subject with the same last name by his first name, if he is related, or by his full name if he is not.

Mary Jones is a university president. Jones speaks four languages. She comes from a talented family--her brother Kevin is a famous composer. Kevin's latest symhony won a Pulitzer. They are no relation to famous economist Ron Jones. In 1998 Ron Jones published a paper on the relationship between federal interest rates and intricate shoelace-tying practices in the inner city. When Kevin read this paper, his entire worldview was blown away, and he sent it on to Jones, who used its radical findings to restructure the university.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:46 AM on June 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

I absolutely agree with those who recommend using the last name. It's a mark of respect. Seeing first names in a nonfiction profile piece would not sit well with me or with many readers - it's far too informal for such a publication.

Your relationship with the subject matters not at all. I've had to interview friends and family several times, but for stories in which that relationship is not the focus, it's inappropriate. It just draws attention to yourself and your chumminess with the subject, which is not the impression you want to give.

You say you want this to "reflect well upon the college" and want to show respect. Those are the exact reasons why the subject is referred to by his or her last name. If I received my college magazine - a piece which exists partly to win my support and motivate me to donate more money - and found people being referenced by first name, I'd be put off.

You say you write and edit this magazine - do you not have your own stylesheet and rules? You definitely should. Perhaps there's a communications, journalism, or English professor that can help you draw up standard style guidelines so your publication is consistent from issue to issue and you have some non-arbitrary reference to use when editing the work of other writers. Also, there are thousands of peer publications out there. Do you have a few examples around the office to compare yours to? See how they handle referencing (I think you'll find it's almost universally last-name). If you don't have a stash of examples, why not pick the phone and call a few editors from peer publications and ask what they think? You won't need to reinvent the wheel. Another similar college publication might even be able to send you a copy of the stylesheet, and then you can make your own modifications.

Also, think of yourself as a "real" journalist. You are one. When people agree to be interviewed by you, part of their expectation is being treated as a "real" journalistic subject.
posted by Miko at 6:38 AM on June 29, 2007

Miko and thinkingwoman give some great advice. I think there are times when using first names is appropriate - like for very long, feature stories - but I don't know what the tone is of your article, if it is more featurey or more newsy.

And I am surprised your magazine does not have some kind of style guide. If you don't want to look like a "hick rag," then you guys should either make an in-house style guide or use something like the AP style guide. Consistency is key and you will look more amateurish if you don't have any.
posted by sutel at 7:27 AM on June 29, 2007

I won't keep arguing this point, but "respectful" is not the only tone implied by using last names, especially in features, which is what this sounds like. I've had readers complain they sound like criminals, or at best very cold and distant impersonal figures, when referred to with last names only due to my publication's style. If being respectful in a formal way is your key priority, you might as well go all the way and refer to "Miss/Mrs/Ms" Jones.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:35 AM on June 29, 2007

Miss/Mr./Mrs is considered pretty archaic in modern American periodicals. Honorifics have generally been dropped except for a few holdouts, notably the New York Times (which uses its own unique stylebook, not AP). One of the main reasons for that is that honorific usage isn't parallel unless you go with the nonsexist "Ms." universally, which always raises objections, or you go with "Miss/Mrs." which is sexist.

In general, last names are standard in professional writing across the vast majority of publications. A few minutes at any magazine counter will bear that out. The only exceptions I can think of seeing in recent years are in freebie, 'shopper' ad-carrier weeklies, and unfortunately the use of first names seems to make them sound even more rinky-dink and parochial.
posted by Miko at 7:52 AM on June 29, 2007

Thinkingwoman's got it. There are much better ways to lighten tone than referring to a subject by first name throughout a piece.
posted by klangklangston at 9:25 AM on June 29, 2007

Our style here is honorifics except for criminals -- which was common in ye olden days.
posted by bonaldi at 9:47 AM on June 29, 2007

I think you should use the last name. First name is odd. The biggest problem with AP style (and the best thing about the Times) comes up when you have siblings, or married couples, etc, because it's really a drag to say Jane Smith and John Smith every time instead Mr./Mrs./Ms., etc.

Since you're not going with AP style, necessarily, I really like thinkingwoman's suggestion about first name for relatives once you've introduced them. It sounds nice.

If you really think a first-name basis is alright, then you should have a rational reason for doing it. (For instance, if you know she LIKES being called by her first name, this is how I would start the article. "Mary Smith Jones is the president of X university, but she's on a first-name basis with almost everyone who knows her. Mary ...." etc.) If this is not true, then you should stick to the last name.

The only time I find the first name use compelling is when dealing with unspeakable tragedy, or when someone is handicapped, or when someone is a child. If you use the first name for an otherwise fully functioning adult, you are telling the reader that there is something to pity or pardon about them.
posted by Happydaz at 10:44 AM on June 29, 2007

As a woman, if you did an article on me, especially if I had a big important job or life worthy of a profile, I'd want you to use my last name. It is more formal but it's what all the guys get. Maybe it depends on the piece but I'd be inclined to play it safe and respectfully. And I think the advice to refer to husbands and brothers and friends by their first name.
posted by amanda at 2:36 PM on June 29, 2007

... is a good one.

(That's how that last sentence should read. Sheesh!)
posted by amanda at 2:36 PM on June 29, 2007

Using her first name implies an intimacy that does not, in fact, exist. (Unless you're closer to the subject than you've already said.)

You want her and your magazine to seem approachable? Do good reporting that goes beyond the superficial. Ask her questions that get her to share with you, and through you, the readers.
posted by sacre_bleu at 7:10 PM on June 29, 2007

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