How Does ‘Time’ Actually Choose Who Wins Person of the Year?

Every year, ‘Time’ selects a Person of the Year. How do they actually choose who receives that distinction, though? Here’s what we know.

Abi Travis - Author

Dec. 10 2020, Published 4:57 p.m. ET

time person of the year criteria pick
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Time has officially announced its shortlist for 2020’s Person of the Year. The finalists are President-elect Joe Biden, President Donald Trump, the Movement for Racial Justice, and Frontline Health Care Workers (along with Dr. Anthony Fauci). For the first time ever, Time is revealing this year’s Person of the Year not only with a magazine cover but also with a television special which airs Thursday, Dec. 10 on NBC at 10 p.m. ET.

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Naturally, some people are wondering about the Time Person of the Year criteria — what does it take to win such a prestigious honor? Here’s what you need to know in case you want to try to qualify (although technically, “You” already won back in 2006!).

time person of the year criteria
Source: Getty Images
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What are the criteria for ‘Time’s Person of the Year?

Although being Time’s Person of the Year is certainly a notable accomplishment, we should clarify that it isn’t technically an award in the traditional sense. While most of the people who have been named Person of the Year have earned the title by achieving good things in the world, that’s not one of the criteria. In fact, both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have “won” the title in the past (Stalin actually won it twice!), and, well, it wasn’t because they were particularly good guys.

According to Time, there is really only one criterion that determines the Person of the Year. They are “the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year.” As you can imagine, that means that some years, there are people who are up in arms about whichever person Time selects — especially when politics are involved.

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On the bright side, if someone whom you don’t like happens to be chosen this year, you can feel free to remind yourself that Time isn’t choosing the best person. They’re just choosing the most newsworthy person.

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In fact, sometimes the Person of the Year isn’t a person at all. The Person of the Year distinction can go to a person, but can also go to a group, an idea, or an object. For instance, the Computer was named Person of the Year in 1982, and The Endangered Earth (yes, the planet) took the honor in 1988. Ultimately, when it comes to the criteria for Person of the Year, there’s apparently quite a bit of room for interpretation.

The Person of the Year feature started out as a way to cover up a mistake.

Interestingly enough, we may not have had a Time Person of the Year in 2020 (or ever) if it hadn’t been for an oversight Time’s editors made almost 100 years ago. As the year 1927 came to a close, they realized that Charles Lindbergh hadn’t made it onto a single cover of the magazine all year, despite his historical flight in May of that year rocketing him to fame.

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In order to cover their bases, they decided to slap his face on the cover and just call him “Man of the Year,” fixing their oversight and starting a new tradition. Actually, the feature remained “Man of the Year” until 1936, when Wallis Simpson was named Woman of the Year. It eventually became “Person of the Year” in 1999.

And now it’s 2020, and we get a whole new Person of the Year! It’ll certainly be interesting to see who it is.

Watch Time’s Person of the Year broadcast on Thursday, Dec. 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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