Whatshisname: Why people’s names matter in news reports


This week, following the deaths of 76 people in Norway during two attacks made by the same individual, many news and opinion pieces are being written to contextualize and to offer ways of understanding what has happened. My post is a comment on one such op-ed, and I focus on common journalistic and news consumption practices related to personal names.

As I read this op-ed from the Globe & Mail, I was struck by the substitution of “the Norwegian terrorist’s” name, with the term “whatshisname.” It was intentional and it was interesting, not just for the reason the author intended.

Put briefly, the author’s message is that it’s time to stop giving this lunatic any more attention by using his name, though that argument got a bit muddled when the article went on to list the names of many other perpetrators of comparable violence.

What was interesting to me– as someone who studies personal names and particularly how we make sense of each other’s names– is that it made me want to see the subject’s name again. I’d looked at whatshisname’s name closely on Saturday when I first read the Globe & Mail’s coverage about the attacks in Norway, because I was I was trying to make sense of who this person was…

His name is Anders Behring Breivik, and before photos of him were available, news reports described him as an “ethnic Norwegian” as a way of explaining that he is Norwegian through and through, or Norwegian as we might imagine a native Norwegian to be (i.e., stereotypically blond-haired and blue-eyed). He was described this way to ensure he wasn’t thought to be someone whose family had migrated to Norway or a racialized citizen of Norway.  

This type of clarification might not have been necessary in Norway’s own press, where people are familiar with a variety of names of Norwegian citizens, so they could likely see his name’s significance immediately. In the Canadian media, (the Globe and Mail and the CBC being the messengers I am most familiar with), we often read descriptors of people’s citizenships and ethnicities so we can make sense of these details even if they have no bearing on the news story. They are used to explain the name: to give us confidence in our interpretation of a name, or to correct false assumptions. If name changes have been made they are generally reported, as well.

So, what to make of the reporting practice of noting individual’s ethnicities? I think it requires further investigation. For example, how has it changed over time, especially through the past twenty years as Canada’s population demographic has become much more ethnically diverse due to increased immigration? What exactly are our news media policies about reporting ethnicity and citizenship? Most significantly, are ethnicities and nationalities consistently reported?  

The descriptors that are included along with names do allow us to make make more precise classifications, and the name itself has less work to do in our quotidian classifications as we make sense of the world. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing. However, descriptors of ethnicity, citizenship, and even religion may also allow us to make shortcuts in understanding people’s circumstances and motivations, and to fall back to stereotypes that have worked for us before. That could–and often does–have negative consequences. But maybe we’d be making assumption based on names just as quickly if the descriptors weren’t present.

That this op-ed didn’t use a name might not work for the purposes its author intended, but it does give the reader pause to consider how rarely it happens that we aren’t given a name to read in terms of ethnicity, and potentially religion or nationality, to help us make sense of a news report. 

As the story of the tragedy in Norway has evolved, we’ve understood that names, ethnicities, and classifications based on them, do in fact play a role in what transpired. But clearly Breivik’s motivations lie with him as an individual, and have little to do with the descriptors that could go along with his name.


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