Letter to the Editor: USA Today, what's in a name?

In a recent article titled “Israel warns against Palestinian U.N. bid,” dated on November 29th, 2012, USA Today failed to produce a culturally sensitive report, which I find intolerant and reflecting nothing short of lazy journalism. This, in turn, shines a bad light on the quality of USA Today’s work.

A Palestinian man named Khalil Ebed Allah was interviewed for a report and was later referred to by his final of his two last names -“Allah” -throughout the article. Using a last name to refer to someone after initially introducing the subject is standard writing style in journalism. The problem here is instead of using Khalil’s full last name Ebed Allah, the journalist used only “Allah.”

Allah, in the Islamic faith, is the name of God. The use of the term “Allah” is placed at an exceptionally high and sacred standard in Islam. It is not used in any other way except for referencing God. Muslims also don’t use it as a name, unless it is preceded by something else; and if it keeps in line with maintaining the oneness of God and avoiding any kind of human association. For example, the word “Ebed”, which also takes the variations of Abed, Abd, Abdel, and Abdul, translates to “servant of.” Additionally, it is often seen in many Arabic names and changes forms, depending on the context. Ebed Allah, “servant of God,” is a common name in the Muslim world.

The Associated Press, a commonly used format by many news organizations, noted in its style book, a section on Arabic names. The 2012 AP Stylebook’s guideline on the writing, style, and use of Arabic names in news reporting is clearly absent in this article. The stylebook (pp. 18-19) noted that, “Arabs commonly are known by two last names (Hassan Nasrallah), or by three (Mohammed Mahi Akef).” In this case, the person cited was known by two – Ebed Allah – and USA Today failed to cite it properly.

This is not only an aberration of basic journalistic style, but it is also a misunderstanding of Arab and Islamic culture.

This might seem mundane to the Editor, or even the publication’s readership, but cultural sensitivity and competence in reporting by journalists, and a well-respected news organization, is an essential principle to uphold the overall standard of journalism. It is what upholds any reputable news organization’s integrity.

This lack of sensitivity toward Arab and Islamic culture makes a caricature of good reporting. If USA Today is going to do reporting on topics related to the Middle East and Islamic affairs, then there should be some understanding that Allah means God; and in the context of this article this offhand writing may insult or offend Muslims.

This is a small, and perhaps unintentional, flaw in your reporting; however the lack of understanding about basic Islamic names in your reporting is an issue for the journalism profession. It is what sets culturally sensitive news organizations, who truly attempt to understand and reflect the complexities in all cultures, from others that carelessly produce articles that disregard basic journalistic style.

High quality journalism attempts to understand and reflect the complexities in all cultures, whereas low quality journalism carelessly and inaccurately represents basic cultural norms.

See the original USA Today article here.