Reporting on the Olympics and the President : NPR Public Editor The Olympic Games are in the news right now. But some listeners say they don't want to know the results. Another issue for some listeners, like fingernails on a blackboard, is how NPR refers to President Bush.
NPR logo Reporting on the Olympics and the President

Reporting on the Olympics and the President

The Olympic Games are in the news right now. But some listeners say they don't want to know the results. They prefer to wait until they can watch the competition televised on a time-delayed basis. NPR News has an obligation to report the news in a timely fashion -- including the Olympic results. But some listeners, like Peggy Ziegler just don't want to know who won what until they can watch later on television:

Please, please give us some warning before you launch into Olympic results on NPR... If your news deliverers would just warn us by saying something like, "If you don't want to know Olympic results now, this would be a good time to turn off your radio" -- we'd be happy campers!

Newscast announcers have been told to give the listeners some warning of what's to come for the benefit of the television viewers among the listeners. NPR editors have been advised to begin all reports of Olympic results with either:



That should give listeners enough time to leap over the breakfast table, or lunge to the car radio and lower the volume. By the way, each report on an NPR newscast runs about a minute.

You Say Torino and I Say...

As for the name of the Olympic venue, listener David Masters protests!

Come on Dvorkin! Come on Fatsis! Come on Poggioli! Come on Simon! Come on the rest of you! PRI, NBC, Westwood One, et cetera are all pronouncing the name of the host city properly. Why should NPR concertedly disregard the native spelling (and) pronunciation of Torino, Italia?

Listener Larry Pearson agrees:

Why is NPR calling the city of Torino by its anglicized name? I know that Turin has been the name on U.S. maps for a long time. And if all NPR programming had only an occasional reference to a city, the anglicized name might make sense. But we will hear about the site of the Winter Olympics many times a day for two weeks. If NBC thinks its TV audience can handle Torino, why does NPR think its more sophisticated audience cannot?

NPR has decided to use the anglicized version because, according to Kee Malesky,

NPR's reference librarian, "Turin" and not "Torino" is the preferred usage recommended by the Associated Press. Kee also notes that Sylvia Poggioli does not report from "Roma."

I think Messrs Masters and Pearson are right in this case. Usually I would say that referring to Pah-REE or RO-ma would be both excessive and pretentious because both place names are so well known in their anglicized form. But the AP's style guide is intended for newspapers and AP usually errs on the traditional side of the English language. I think an exception could be made in this case for Torino which is not as well known to English speakers.

'President?' 'Mister?' or Just Plain 'Bush?'

The other longtime issue for some listeners, like fingernails on a blackboard, is how NPR refers to President Bush.

Many ask why NPR refers to the president of the United States as "Mr. Bush" on second reference, instead of "President Bush" in all cases? Some listeners, like Tom King, insist this sounds insufficiently respectful.

Frequently on NPR news shows, reports dealing with the U.S. president refer to him as "President Bush" once, but then all additional references are to "Mr. Bush". This seems unique to the president, as other people with titles are always addressed as Sen. Smith or Dr. Jones, etc. Is there a reason why President Bush does not get the same consideration?

Using the Honorific

The title, such as "President," "Mr." or "Ms.", in front of a name is called an honorific. NPR uses the honorific "President" on first reference and then "Mr." for all subsequent mentions. This has been NPR's style going back at least to the Ford administration. Most other broadcasters have the same policy. It also makes for better writing to vary the honorific.

Newspapers seem to have a different standard. For some reason, the president is usually referred to as "President Bush" or "the president," on first reference. But the honorific is rarely used on second reference. And in newspaper headlines particularly, the solitary "Bush" is often seen.

The president is the only person who -- by decree and tradition at NPR -- gets the honorific. All others who are mentioned in news reports are usually referred to by their title or occupation on first reference ("Jane Doe is a reporter for The New York Times..."). After that, it's surnames only.

Out of Politeness

One exception can be heard in interviews. Out of politeness, the program host often mentions both first and last names. For example, NPR's Robert Siegel did so in a recent interview ("Welcome to the program, Paul Pillar"), and later employed the honorific ("Mr. Pillar, thank you very much for talking with us").

One further exception is NPR's Scott Simon who, in his own courtly way, invokes the honorific for everyone he speaks to or reports on.

'An Advantage to Bush?'

Listener Sandor Polster, a former broadcaster, disagrees. He thinks NPR, along with other news organizations, have become overly deferential to the president who is, after all, elected by the people:

I am troubled by various NPR news programs' use of the courtesy title "Mr." when making second references to President Bush, but failing to use that same title when making second references to other individuals in the same news report. It conveys in the listener's mind an advantage to Bush over the others.

My own sense is that NPR needs to stick with its policy of using the honorific for the president. In our system (unlike Britain or Canada), the president is both the head of government and the head of state. The president is the embodiment of the country and as such, the honorific is appropriate for him and unnecessary for the rest of us.

The BBC and the CBC dropped all honorifics back in the 1980s, even for the prime minister (but not for Queen Elizabeth II). Before that, those public broadcasters always referred to everyone as either Mr., Mrs. or Miss. The only ones not granted the honorific were convicted felons and journalists!

As for Mr. Scott Simon, at least there are some among us for whom the old habits of unfailing politeness and suitable deference remain entrenched.