Verbal Energy

Have we been properly introduced?

A quick guide to the journalistic concept of 'first reference' – as good manners in communication.

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Politeness may not be the first quality that pops into your head when you think about journalists. But there's a helpful journalistic concept that can be applied widely. It can make people fundamentally more courteous communicators.

I'm referring to what journalists call "first reference." News organizations have rules, often elaborate ones, about how persons, places, and things are referred to when they are first mentioned in an article. (Of course you already know this, Dear Reader, but I'm spelling it out here so you can share it with any of your friends who may not.)

People, for a start, get their "full" names; that is, a given name and a family name. Rules vary about formal or familiar first names – Joe Biden or Joseph? Some newspapers use middle initials; others avoid them, on the grounds that it's asking for trouble to try to get them right consistently.

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Except for a relative handful of cities that "stand alone," communities generally need to be anchored within their state or country. Political entities, institutions, businesses, and other organizations all need to be introduced in enough detail but not too much.

For instance, during the cold war, the formal name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was too much; the initials "USSR" were too little. In the Monitor's stylebook, at least, "the Soviet Union" was the just-right middle ground.

These journalistic conventions provide the same sort of service to the larger public discussion that a hostess does when she makes sure that all her guests have been properly introduced to one another.

The journalist's question is always, Will this term, as I have introduced it, make sense to the general reader who comes to it cold in a random news story? It's a principle we can apply in our own communications with friends, family, colleagues, and others.

The rules of "first reference" have a downside, however. They assume among the reading public a body of basic knowledge about the world, which daily news reports merely build upon.

A daily newspaper at its best is a community's conversation with itself. With dailies disappearing, though, that conversation may be less like the family gathering every night around the dinner table and more like Sunday lunch at Grandma's.

In a Web culture that often seems to reinforce our own biases ("People who bought this also bought..."), a notion of shared knowledge may be an iffy assumption. And the ideas about what that knowledge includes may be anchored in the headlines of decades ago. Is "NATO" a meaningful construct for a 20-something glancing at news headlines on his smart phone? (And if not, does it help at all to write out "North Atlantic Treaty Organization"?)

We all have friends with multiple "Bobs" or "Janes" in their lives; we count on context and tone of voice to tell whether the "Bob" of the moment is the cute guy in accounting or the contractor who has been taking forever to finish the guest bathroom. And spouses and other intimates can have an entire conversation in an exchange of glances. But part of gracious communication, especially in a group, is making explicit what the reader or listener would otherwise have to infer or surmise.

The fundamental question behind issues of "first reference" remains relevant: How should this concept be introduced?

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