A bizarre, and somehow funny, incident has been making the rounds these days on social media circles that should spark a debate on journalism practices. It was a live TV interview with a student at the University of Houston who happened to be Arab-American. The student pretended to be one of the witnesses to an armed robbery at one of the campus' residence halls in an interview to ABC13's reporter, Crystal Kobza.
The fact that the student actually lied about being a witness was not the only issue here. The major issue was the name that he gave to the reporter, which was "Abu Sharmouta," a derogatory term in Arabic that means "The father of the prostitute."
The reporter actually said the pretend name of the student a number of times on TV, and it also appeared as a tag line on the screen. "Abu Sharmouta" told the reporter that he saw "three black males," and that two of the perpetrators were wearing red hoodies.
Here is the TV interview:
The student revealed himself on Twitter as Sayyed Jamal Hamideh, a broadcast journalism major. His Twitter account has been active lately as he responded to his mostly-Arab fans around the world who found his prank funny.
Here are some examples:
@ThatPancakeKid I've never seen my dad laugh so much in his life he kept on saying Abu sharmouta for a good 5 mins and kept on laughin hahah
— sarah jabari (@sarahjabari) December 16, 2013
In an interview with HuffPost Live, Hamideh admitted he didn't witness the robbery, and he played this prank after pulling an all nighter to take his friends' minds off the finals.
The reporter who did the interview has been largely silent about the incident, but got some support from the prankster himself:
Hey yall, everyone PLEASE go follow and tweet nice things at @CrystalKobza13 for being awesome and such good sport.
— Sayed Jamal Hamideh (@ThatPancakeKid) December 16, 2013
This incident raises the following question: In the age of breaking news and round-the-clock reports, to which extent are reporters required to fact-check "ethnic names" like "Abu Sharmouta"? What if someone else plays a similar prank in an other language, like Chinese, for example, and no one notices it but the Chinese-speaking audience?
I raised that question to my Facebook followers and friends, and of the answers that I got was the following: "Cultural and linguistic training should be mandatory. No TV broadcaster is too small or local for that."
I completely agree, but in the age of newsroom restructuring and staff cuts, do media outlets find this kind of training essential when many of them are simply struggling to stay alive?
One solution would be for fact-checkers to contact their "language consultants" -- if they have any -- when they come across unfamiliar names. I attended one of the most prestigious journalism schools in England, and I don't remember anyone stressing the importance of double-checking "ethnic" names and making sure they are accurate in the local language. The major emphasis back then was on spelling, the right affiliation and the overall facts of the story. No one has ever thought of an "Abu Sahrmouta" scenario. However, journalism is very much in flux these days and there is a always a room to revisit its standards. You have to give it to "Abu Sharmouta" for exposing this fact-checking hole.