News Service Accused of Cultural Insensitivity in Describing Dead Boys in Crash as "Obsessed," "Arabic-speaking," "Middle Eastern"

Driver Abdulrahman Alyahyan, R.I.P.
Driver Abdulrahman Alyahyan, R.I.P.

By describing the two boys who died along with three girls in a Newport Beach Memorial Day crash as "obsessed," "Middle Eastern immigrants" who "spoke Arabic together when they hung out, which was constantly," is the Associated Press displaying cultural insensitivity?

If not, asks a media watchdog, why did the AP not report on the ethnicity, languages and country of origin of the female victims? The international news service reveals driver Abdulrahman Alyahyan, 17, was from Saudi Arabia and passenger Nozad Al Hamawendi, 17, was from Iraq. One assumes from the surnames, but not AP, that Cecilia Zamora, 17, and sisters Robin Cabrera, 17, and Aurora Cabrera, 16, are Latinas.

The Associated Press, like other news services, constantly updates, rewrites and pulls information in and out of stories. A version of the Jamboree Road crash story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contains many of the passages criticized by iMediaEthnics, a nonprofit also known as StinkyJournalism.com that was founded by Rhonda Roland Shearer, artist, art historian and adjunct journalism lecturer at the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and her late husband Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Harvard professor and scientist.

The AP source for the late boys' countries of origin is their "close friend" Mohamad Abdul Razzak, 16, who "also arrived in the U.S. last year from Lebanon." No such description of the country of origin is given to the friends of the girls quoted by the news service.

One key passage from the iMediaEthics report:

The AP described the deceased young men as being

"...part of a larger group of about 10 close friends who were either first- or second-generation immigrants from various Middle Eastern countries."

And that they "all spoke Arabic together when they hung out, which was constantly."


Later:

It is striking that the AP chose to highlight the ethnic background of only some of the victims and only one of their sources. How is the information relevant to the story? AP does not say.

Given the current climate in this country (events like the Boston bombing and hate crimes against Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs) this is ethically questionable and potentially inflammatory. And the climate is only exacerbated when combined with the AP's description of the two as "obsessed."

That's the word the AP applies to Alyahyan ("obsessed with his Infiniti sedan") and Hamawendi ("obsessed with weight-lifting"). Obsessed, of course, is also a word often used to describe those who call for a ... well ... let's just say it rhymes with "bee hodd." The girls, meanwhile, are said by the AP to be "accomplished dancers" (but apparently not obsessive ones).

iMediaEthics checked other recent AP coverage of fatal crashes involving teens and found no such ... wait for it ... obsession with having to report victims' ethnicity or countries of origin. The watchdogs also checked coverage of the Newport Beach crash by the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets and found no mentions of race or ethnicity but descriptions of the boys as essentially nice lads.

The Weekly contacted the AP this morning for a reaction but has not yet heard back. This post will be updated should the news service offer a response.
 
By the way, you can check the cultural sensitivity of the Weekly coverage here:

Teen Driver Who Died with 4 Others on Jamboree Road Had No Valid License: Update

(Truth be told, a reader does knock us in the comments for our "Dead Man's Curve" reference.)

The girls (from left): Cecilia "Ce Ce" Zamora, Aurora Cabrera and Robin Cabrera, R.I.P.
The girls (from left): Cecilia "Ce Ce" Zamora, Aurora Cabrera and Robin Cabrera, R.I.P.

Yasmin Nouh, formerly of the Weekly (which misses her very much!) and now with the Council on Islamic-American Relations' Greater Los Angeles office in Anaheim, read the AP story but did not have the same takeaway as iMediaEthics.

"I can't tell why there was a need to mention their ethnic background and the fact they all spoke Arabic together; it doesn't seem pertinent to the story," she agreed. "However, I don't think [it] was ill-intended."

Nouh mostly bases this on the AP byline with the crash coverage: Gillian Flaccus.

"I know Gillian, and we've worked with him her on a number of stories," Nouh said. "As a reporter, he she has a history of being culturally sensitive in his her reporting. I honestly have no reason to believe that he she had any ill-intention."

An Irvine resident, Nouh also knows "some youth who knew the students personally and are personally affected by this tragedy. We send our condolences to the families and will keep them in our prayers."

Give the AP props for avoiding ethnic, language and country of origin prompts for Tamer Mosallam in later updates to the story. The 17-year-old Irvine High junior was supposed to round out what would be a triple date to the beach.

"I was supposed to be with them in the car, that's why there were three girls," Mosallam explained to the AP. "They came to my house but my dad wouldn't let me go out because I was studying for a test."

He's mourning the loss of his friends but at least still lives to see another day when a news service can detail where he's from, what he speaks and what kind of food his grandma makes.

Email: mcoker@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!


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