Why journalists misspell names & why it matters to get them right

Throughout the years I’ve gotten used to people misspelling my name. My late aunt seemed to spell it differently every time she wrote me a Christmas or birthday card, and teachers used to misspell it, too. In the third grade I started to write “Mal” on top of my papers to avoid confusion, but my mom didn’t approve.

“Mallary, stop that,” I remember her saying. “Write your full name and be proud of it.”

I love the unusual spelling of my name, but I’m continuously surprised by how many people misspell it. Several editors recently spelled it wrong, prompting my editor to suggest that I write about the experience. To find out more about misspelled names, I got in touch with Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman, who said they’re the sixth most common newspaper error. The error is so common, Silverman said, because journalists forget to ask for the right spelling, they do it from memory, they assume the name is spelled the “normal way,” or they’re misled by incorrect sources online.

When it comes to misspelled names, sources may assume that if a reporter got a name wrong, he or she may have gotten other more significant facts wrong, too. And if you’re the source whose name was misspelled, you can’t help but wonder just how much the journalist who interviewed you really cared. Names are a part of who we are, so we feel disrespected when journalists don’t take the time to spell them right.  You can read more about this in my story

The story generated a lot of discussion — I think because so many people can relate to having their first and last names misspelled. Here are just some of the misspellings readers shared with me on Twitter and Facebook:

Steve Buttry — Steve Butry, Buttery, Buttrey

Macy Koch — Mary Koch

Mark Follman — Mark Fullman

Meghan Welsh — Megan Welch

Mai Phoang — Mia, May, Moi, Mya, Maya, Maia. Mi Hong, Wong, Hwong, Hang

Sue Llewellyn — Sue Looellin

David Folkenflik & Eric Deggans — Both had their names misspelled by their own publications.

I was surprised when a couple of readers said that my parents are to blame for spelling Mallary “the wrong way.” One reader, for instance, tweeted: “Good story, will use it in my journalism classes. But, I’m sorry, your mother spelled your name wrong, you pay the price.” (He since removed the tweet but made a similar comment on my story.) I responded by saying that Mallary with an “A” isn’t wrong; it’s just different from the norm.

Several journalists weighed in on Facebook and shared related thoughts on journalists’ obligation to spell names right:

How has your name been misspelled?

Published by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Mallary is a mom of two young kiddos -- Madelyn and Tucker. Mallary absolutely loves being a mom and often writes about the need to find harmony when juggling motherhood and work. Mallary is the Assistant Director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, where she manages the Center's various programs related to distance learning, freedom of expression, and digital journalism. Previously, she was Executive Director of Images & Voices of Hope and Managing Editor of The Poynter Institute’s media news site, Poynter.org. Mallary grew up outside of Boston and graduated from Providence College in Rhode Island. In 2015, she received a certificate in nonprofit management from Duke University. She now lives in beautiful Austin, Texas, with her kids, husband Troy and cat Clara. She's working on a memoir, slowly but surely. You can reach her at mjtenore@gmail.com.

5 thoughts on “Why journalists misspell names & why it matters to get them right

  1. Hi Mallary, I have worked in medical records for the past twenty years. I have come across so many unique names, and yes some are spelled different than the norm. What’s the big deal, just take the time out to spell the person’s name right. It shows you care. I also have the same problem with the spelling of my name. In my case I really don’t get it. My name is written—-Jena,Jina,Jeanna,Gena,Geanna. I kid you not. I happy to have such a pretty name, and so should you! Love,

    Gina.

  2. Oh I can really relate to this. I also have a pretty common name that is spelled weird. I’ve gotten Lynette, Lenette, Linnette, Lunette. Mostly no one seems to want to accept that my name does not end in -ette.

    I don’t expect anyone to know how to spell my name from just hearing it, so I don’t get upset when that happens. It’s when I know you’ve SEEN my name and you have access to how it’s spelled that I get upset. I’ve seen people misspell my name in email replies to me. I sign all my emails. Not to mention my email IS my name. No excuse!

    I love how your name is spelled, I agree with what your mom said!

    1. Hi Leannet,

      I can see how your name would get misspelled! People misspell my name all the time in emails, so I can feel your frustration. It’s surprising how often this happens, given that I sign all of my emails, too!

      And yes, I agree with my mom, too. 🙂

      Thanks for following my blog!
      ~Mallary

  3. Hi, Mallary
    I’m with you. I have funky spelling first name (which isn’t all that funky in Europe) and a weird last name so get some awesome variations.
    I’m with Leannet – I get a lot of replies to emails I’ve sent and still spelling my name wrong. It’s right there in front of you!
    Typically I get ‘I know it’s spelled weird’ so they just make it up or ‘I don’t know how to do the accent’ so they just ignore it.
    I think it’s definitely a sign of respect and an indication of your professionalism to get names correct. If you have to check quotes and facts, why not names?

    Aimée

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