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Why journalists should be careful with abbreviations

Why journalists should be careful with abbreviations
Robert Holloway is a columnist and ombudsman at DL News.
  • The trial of Sam Bankman-Fried, or SBF, highlights the use of acronyms and nicknames in the press.
  • However, while acronyms are useful to headline writers, there are reasons why journalists should tread carefully when using them.

Robert Holloway is a columnist and ombudsman at DL News. Views expressed are his own.

The trial and verdict of Sam Bankman-Fried got me thinking about the use of initials by the media.

Headline writers like it when they are able to use them to refer to people. SBF takes up far less space than his full name.

Abbreviations are a boon for page makeup artists too.

Most crypto news sites are happy to put SBF in a headline. Other media are more likely to use a nickname such as “crypto king”.

In this case, it saves space too, but some headline writers would defend nicknames because they are informative.

Not every reader knows who SBF is, so “crypto king on trial” helps them to grasp what’s going on.

Both abbreviations and nicknames should, for different though similar reasons, be used with care.

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Even seemingly familiar initials can sometimes be a source of confusion. Mainstream media use them sparingly.

On October 31, a day chosen at random, the New York Times used four headline abbreviations on its website homepage.

Three of them — FBI, UN and 9/11 — would have been clear to most readers. Only Americans — and a handful of others — would have recognised GOP, or Grand Old Party, which stands for the Republicans.

The Guardian, The Financial Times and the BBC were even more sparing. All three referred to the IDF, while FBI, NZ, UN and LBGTQ also appeared.

Abbreviations obviously have their use. This week, the Collins Dictionary chose AI as its word of the year. Two years ago the choice was NFT.

The rule of thumb for reporters and editors, however, is to never use an initial or an abbreviation at the expense of clarity. Never leave a reader to guess at your meaning.

For most of my career I was a journalist at AFP.

As bureau chief in Sydney, it was necessary to spell out that I worked for Agence France-Presse and not the Australian Federal Police.

The host of a conference on human rights once introduced me as a speaker for Americans for Prosperity, a foundation set up by the billionaire Koch brothers.

But for any specialist, there is something chummy about initial-dropping, whether in print or in conversation. It is a form of jargon and sounds like a code for the initiated.

“What are you covering today?” “I’m working on ACRA’s reaction to the ECCT bill.”

This kind of shorthand reference flatters readers too. It makes them feel like people in the know, taking inside information from experts.

Politicians love to be known by their initials, and their public relations officials encourage journalists to use them.

Those of the former US presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy are still familiar to New Yorkers.

The highway running along the East River is called FDR Drive. If you want a taxi to take you to the airport all you have to tell the driver is “JFK!”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the US House of Representatives re-elected last year, is known as AOC.

Initials lend a note of informality that might appeal even to autocrats.

It is no doubt advisable to call Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman “your royal highness” in his presence, but his communications office has no objection to MBS in print.

Informality reduces the critical distance between a journalist and the person she or he is writing about.

Even better than initials in a politician’s eyes is a nickname. They too should be used judiciously.

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson was happy to be called Boris, or BoJo, by publications like the Daily Mail.

It fitted nicely with his image of chic dishevelment. His unbrushed hair and slightly creased shirts were calculated to contrast with the buttoned-up earnestness of his critics.

However, the question is if that sort of chumminess is desirable for the press. The role of the press in a democracy includes holding elected officials to account.

It is subtly undermined by a leader whose appearance and demeanour suggest that politics is not quite as serious as all that.

It is even harder for a political reporter to engage with someone who believes that the most important issues of the day can be reduced to the acronym MAGA.

It became popular to refer to people by their initials after the rise of tabloid newspapers in the late 19th century. Long before that, however, they were used as an expression of power.

But fame is fleeting.

The initials SPQR once stood for the greatest empire in the world.

They are still visible on public buildings and even manhole covers in Rome, but how many visitors know what they mean without looking in a guidebook?

In 2021 Bankman-Fried’s face was on the cover of Time, Forbes and other magazines. This time next year, some may be asking “SB who?”

Others might drop his first initial and simply retain those of his family name which make a well-known British colloquialism: bloody fool.

Do you have strong views about the use of nicknames in reporting? You can share them with me at