Why do the press use surnames?

I was running a media skills course last week when I was asked a question which I’d never been asked before: “why does the press refer to people by their surname?”

My initial, feeble but truthful, answer was “it’s house-style. All papers have a house-style and it is usually that you use the full name on the first outing and the surname only after that.”

Feeling that this was ducking the question, I added, “I suspect this is because it preserves our journalistic neutrality. We can hardly say ‘John murdered someone’.”

Long after I got back to the office, I thought of exceptions to this approach. Saying, “Jones was murdered”, when it’s fresh news would be heartless. It would have to be “Mrs Jones…” or “baby John…”.

I guess that whether we deviate boils down to common sense.

Maybe the origins lie in saving lead or typesetter’s time. Anyone know?

2 thoughts on “Why do the press use surnames?

  1. Regardless of the origin, I think it was a pretty strange question in the first case! Full name in the first instance and then surname or firstname subsequently, as you mention, is just “common sense”. The piece would not read properly presented any other way – or have i been conditioned?

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