What's in a Name? To a Reporter, Everything

Election stories about voters can be a peculiar challenge for reporters, as NPR's Don Gonyea knows. First, you have to find voters who will open up, but — just as important — you have to get their names.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Election stories about voters can be a peculiar challenge. First, you have to find the voters, then you have to get them to open up, tell them what they're really thinking or tell you what they're really thinking. But just as important, you have to get their full names.

NPR's Don Gonyea has this reporter's notebook about what's in a name when you're on deadline.

DON GONYEA: The cell phone rings. It's my editor. She wants a story and soon. Here's an example: when Barack Obama gave his big speech on race, the next morning I was in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. My assignment: find white voters; see what they think. Along with my producer, the search begins.

First stop: a hardware store - no luck. Then a convenience store - it's all but empty. But there's a diner across the street - George's Family Restaurant. We enter. People sit in booths chatting. It's promising, but the deadline clock is ticking. We ask a waitress if we can talk to her.

Can I get your name?

LOUISE (Waitress, George's Family Restaurant): It's Louise.

GONYEA: Louise.

LOUISE: Yes.

GONYEA: How about a last name, Louise?

LOUISE: Just Louise.

GONYEA: You sure?

LOUISE: Yeah.

GONYEA: Okay. You sure?

LOUISE: Yes, thank you.

GONYEA: Okay.

LOUISE: Thank you.

GONYEA: Well, what about Obama?

It's friendly enough but there's a problem. You see, at NPR we have a rule we follow: before we put people on the air, we need to get their full name. It's about accountability. That way we know, and you know, who's talking. So I need Louise's name if I'm going to use her comments.

All right. Good, thank you. Are you sure…

LOUISE: Thank you.

GONYEA: …you won't tell us your last name?

LOUISE: I'm sorry.

GONYEA: Okay. Okay.

LOUISE: Thank you.

GONYEA: Okay. Thank you. Thanks.

LOUISE: Thank you.

GONYEA: Thanks for talking…

I can tell you that it's especially tough to get people to talk openly when you're asking about something like race. We approach four older men sitting in a nearby booth. They're pretty reserved at first but eventually the conversation takes off. They even start to debate each other.

MR. JIM DELUCA (Patron): We argue. We don't agree.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. DELUCA: And we don't agree right now.

GONYEA: We talk for a half an hour. It's now almost noon. Mindful of the time, I need to wrap it up, but I also still need something.

I got to get everybody's names just so I know who's who.

Unidentified Man #1 (Patron): Oh, we don't do that.

GONYEA: My heart stops. The deadline is looming. Then one guy speaks up.

MR. BILL JORN (Patron): Oh, I'll give you my name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. JORN: Bill.

GONYEA: Bill, what's your last name?

MR. JERRY HOLTZER (PATRON): (Unintelligible) who you're voting for?

MR. JORN: Jorn, J-O-R-N.

GONYEA: J-O-R-N.

The others follow.

MR. DELUCA: Jim…

GONYEA: Jim?

MR. DELUCA: Deluca.

GONYEA: How do you spell it? D-E…

MR. DELUCA: L-U-C-A.

GONYEA: The common spelling.

MR. HOLTZER: I'm Jerry.

GONYEA: Jerry.

MR. HOLTZER: J-E-R-R-Y. Holtzer, H-O-L-T-Z-E-R.

GONYEA: I (unintelligible). I have some great tape and we've got a story.

SIMON: NPR's Don G-O-N-Y-E-A.

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