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I've been following the unfortunate 新潟 railway child murder case on the news recently. I noticed that in the beginning, the news referred to the victim as さん, but later switched their usage to ちゃん―which is the title I would usually expect to see attached to a child. This is unlikely an occasional mistake in that さん occurred several times on different articles related to this case.

When I first saw them use さん on the news, I found it rather odd. However, I figured they probably wanted to show respect to the poor victim. If that was the case, the fact that they switched back to ちゃん struck me as somewhat strange, yet fascinating culture-wise nonetheless.

Question:
Is this phenomenon a common practice in Japan, or merely a matter of personal style? (Since it occurred on Japanese news, I doubt the latter would be the case though.)

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Each media company has its own style guideline. The following report is exactly on this topic.

「ちゃん / 君 /さん」動物が「死亡する / 亡くなる」について~「日本語のゆれに関する調査」の報告~. 放送研究と調査 (PDF)

table

This table is about young male victims, but I think ちゃん tends to be more tolerated when a victim is a girl.

(By the way, 毎日 recently decided to stop using 君 for boys altogether, which strikes me as a pretty "liberal" decision...)


NHK's rule (as of 2005) is:

敬称の扱い
(1)敬称は原則として「さん」あるいは「氏」。複数の場合は「~の各氏」など。 (2)学生や未成年者(男)には「君」を付けてもよい。また,学齢前の幼児には「ちゃん」を付ける。
次のような場合は,小学生についても「ちゃん」を適宜使ってもよい。①本人が痛ましい事件に巻き込まれた場合(誘拐,交通事故など)。②愛らしさを特に強調したい場合。

共同通信社's rule, cited in this page, also says 小学生でも事件の被害者や特別なケースでは適宜「ちゃん」を使用してよい.

So it's the opposite of what you think. A seven-year-old elementary school girl is usually referred to with さん, but when the children is a poor victim, ちゃん can be intentionally chosen to show sympathy. But the research says such usage of ちゃん may be becoming less popular.

Related: use of 〜ちゃん as a generic term

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It's a matter of personal style.

It sounds like they switched the honorifics to us but the one who wrote the manuscript is not the caster or the announcer themselves and they might have failed to share the policy.

They tend to choose さん for whoever these days regardless of nature of the news (being serious or not) and NHK seems to have finally come into this trend too.

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