Most newspapers won't use a person's name in a headline unless it is well known, or even instantly recognizable as a "household word." But headline writers have a lot of room to maneuver in deciding who has achieved that lofty status. When in doubt, they often avoid using the name.

In doing so, they sometimes insult the reader's intelligence. They might well put a little more faith in their readers' knowledge of who's who.The tendency to write down to the reader in identifying names is especially noticeable in Salt Lake Tribune headlines. In last Thursday's Tribune, a headline says, "Ex-Senator's Daughter Dies of Exposure." The "ex-senator" is George McGovern, one of the best-known people in public life, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 and now a whipping boy as the Far Right rails against "McGovernites" and "McGovernism." Why write around the name?

- IN THE SAME ISSUE, the headline over the story on the death of Orval E. Faubus read, "Ex-Governor of Arkansas Dies at 84." Faubus is not newsworthy because he was an ex-governor. Rather, as the story reported, Faubus "became a national symbol of opposition to school desegregation" by calling out the National Guard to keep nine black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. Faubus became so well known for his red-necked intransigence that one of his critics in the '50s wrote that a new verb ought to be added to dictionaries: to "faubus," meaning to make a remarkably stupid and regrettable public policy blunder.

I was troubled less by the appellation in the headline in the same issue that said, "The Heat Is On for Italy's Prime Minister in Corruption Probe," because we pay relatively little attention to Italy's recurrent political crises. But the prime minister, Silvio Ber-lus-coni, is one of the world's best-known politicians and businessmen (a media baron described in the Tribune's story as a "billionaire tycoon"), so the name might well have been used in the head.

- THE TRIBUNE HEADLINE over the story of the death of Dr. Linus Pauling last summer said, "Two-Time Nobel Winner Who Pushed Vitamin C Dies at 93." If one isn't a celebrated figure after two Nobel Prizes, when will he ever be? Pauling in his later years did indeed tout the preventive powers of vitamin C, but more to the point he was one of the most famous and controversial men of our time. He was one of only two people (the other was Marie Curie) ever to win two Nobel Prizes, one in chemistry and one for peace.

A major exception to the "household word" rule is the sports pages. There the editors recognize, or believe, that sports nuts are on intimate terms with the luminaries who populate the pages, like Sanders, Cunningham and Tarpley. Last week "Hansen" was in a large Tribune sports headline, referring, we learn, to Drew Hansen, the Runnin' Utes freshman point guard. Hansen is not yet a well-known, but how would he ever be if the papers keep referring just to "Ute's new guard"?

A further exception to the rule should be all obituaries written as news stories. If the person is important enough to be memorialized in a story obituary, he or she should be named in the headline.

News of crashes

How newspapers have toned down the play given to all but the most horrific air crashes (Media Monitor, Nov. 21) was indicated again last week in their handling of the story of the American Eagle crash in North Carolina, the second for that airline in six weeks.

The Deseret News and the Tribune both carried the story on inside pages (the News flagged it to the inside in the page one briefs column.) The New York Times carried a box on page on e directing the reader to an inside page for the story. USA Today again carried coverage that once was typical of the press generally, banner headlines on page one for two days running. It also carried on page one with pictures a story about a California Air National Guard Learjet crash into an apartment building, killing two and injuring 16. That story ranked high in reader interest because the plane nearly hit an elementary school and the toll might have been much worse.

While I appreciate the efforts of newspapers to de-sensationalize air crashes, in the case of the commuter plane last week, I found the story underplayed. The fact that the accident was the second fatal crash of an American Eagle flight in six weeks was itself a compelling news facet. It certainly was clear from the outset that the crash story would be followed by ongoing stories about investigations and new safety measures. The Tribune brought out to page one the following day a story on the questions everyone is asking, is there something wrong with the airplane or pilots or is this just a "series of unrelated misfortunes"? USA Today in a cover story in the same issue said the airlines "have never been under pressure like this" to improve safety. And the New York Times led page one with with a follow-up story on air safety the following day.

Quoting Elders

So now it's Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the surgeon general, who has learned how imprudent it is to be too outspoken in public life.

In writing (Media Monitor, Nov. 28) about how the mighty fall when they respond off-the-cuff to controversial questions, I mentioned that a slip of the lip leads the press right to the jugular. In the case of Elders, however, the press has been quick to note that she probably misspoke when she said that we should teach masturbation. What she undoubtedly meant, most commentators now agree, is that we should educated about masturbation, a statement that should appear perfectly legitimate to anyone except those who think there's merit in ignorance.

The least forgiving commentators are the professional wags. "Saturday Night Live" had a wickedly funny and unsparing satire on Elders' comments only a day after she was fired, and Jay Leno got several days' worth of gags out of the distinguished but unfortunate lady. That these forums are more powerful in shaping public opinion than the press pundits almost goes without saying, and that is often as not a regrettable part of contemporary life.

Photo finish

If young aspiring journalists should have learned anything about ethics recently it's how dangerous and reprehensible staging a story is and ought to be. Consider for example that repercussions are still being felt from the NBC "Dateline" story in which the news staff rigged explosions in crash tests of GM trucks. (Media Monitor, Feb. 13, 1993.)

Yet the editor of the Columbia University undergraduate daily, the Spectator, apparently had no qualms about staging a photo in her own way. She was holding space for a photo of a new fire truck, but as the deadline neared the truck sat in the firehouse. So she pulled the fire alarm, the truck pulled out, and the daily's photographer got his picture.

In stage managing the event, she also broke the law.

The paper's managing board persuaded her to resign. The paper didn't use the photo.