An Army (trend) of one (or maybe two)

There’s an old journalism joke that goes, “Q: How do journalists count? A: One, two, trend.”

You can tell the joke is old since it implies that it takes at least three examples for a journalist to declare a “trend” and to write an article about it.

In the Twitter age, journalists who wait ’til they find three examples will get scooped, whatever that word means these days, which is why we now have trend stories based on a single-data point or worse.

A prime example is the Associated Press “Big Story” feature that ran with the headline, “Soldier Says She Faced Harassment Over Muslim Name.”

Sgt. 1st Class Naida Hosan is not a Muslim — she’s a Catholic. But her name sounded Islamic to fellow U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and they would taunt her, calling her “Sgt. Hussein” and asking what God she prayed to.

So before deploying to Afghanistan last year for her second war tour, she legally changed her name — to Naida Christian Nova.

This did not solve her problems.

Before we can get to the trend in the story, let’s talk about that headline and second sentence.

What exactly is a Muslim name? And what types of names sound “Islamic?” Some names certainly have religious connotations. If someone is named Christian that would certainly sound like a Christian name. Similarly, if a man is named Mohammed their name might sound “Islamic.” But Hussein is a relatively common Arabic name meaning “good,” “handsome” or “beautiful.”

Thus, there are Christians throughout the world named Hussein, including Barack Hussein Obama. Does the AP think the president’s name is Muslim and “sounds Islamic?”

The “Muslim name” angle is the necessary for the article, though, since it serves to establish the implied trend that members of the military are being discriminated against for having names that sound Islamic (i.e., a name that would be common in Arab cultures). The AP has stumbled upon a potentially significant religious story.

But if such harassment is occuring, why didn’t the AP make the effort to find Muslim soldiers with Arabic names who can verify the discrimination? Instead, their sole confirmation of extreme anti-Muslim bias is the biased anti-Christian activist Mikey Weinstein:

“When a Muslim soldier, sailor or airman stands up for themselves, they are the subject of vicious reprisal and retribution,” said Weinstein, who is Jewish. “What (Sgt. Nova) has gone through is horrible, but it is typical.”

If a journalist is going to harm their credibility by quoting Weinstein, the least they can do is follow up on his claims. Is it true that Muslims are typically subjected to “vicious reprisal and retribution”? Who knows? The AP published a 1,300 word article on Muslim discrimination without quoting a single Muslim.

Unfortunately, instead of following up on the discrimination angle the story merely presents a one-sided view of Sgt. Nova as a religious martyr-by-proxy. Even if you find her story credible (the military man in me really doesn’t, since I’m always skeptical of people who say, “I want to put all this behind me” while telling “all this” to the national news media), the trend of religious discrimination in the military is unsupported by the reporting.

Almost a decade ago the Army scrapped its relatively short-lived recruiting slogan “An Army of One.” They eventually realized it was a silly theme since a single soldier does not make an Army. The AP could learn a similar lesson from the Army’s mistake. No matter how compelling their story, a single soldier does not make a trend.

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  • Jerry

    Outside of one paragraph, that story was about an individual not a trend and was reporting her story. And as such I thought it was well done. And it was not about Muslim experiences but about a women who’s name sounded Islamic. So I see no reason why Muslim experiences had to be covered.

    Now if you wanted to argue that just quoting Mikey Weinstein was a mistake, that is a different point. I think it’s a fair criticism that having only his opinion was a mistake. If the reporter wanted to raise how common her experience is, then more space should have been devoted to that issue.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      Well, yes, outside of one paragraph that says such discrimination is common among Muslims, it doesn’t mention a trend. But that one paragraph shapes the entire article. I can’t imagine why the reporter would go to all the trouble to contact Weinstein—and no one else—if she wasn’t working under the assumption that such discrimination was what the story was really about.

      In fact, that paragraph (or something like it) was necessary for the story to have some semblance of a purpose. If the story was simply “here’s an unfortunate incident that occurred to one soldier” it wouldn’t have been worthy of a local newspaper, much less an AP “Big Story.” (Sgt. Nova’s story raises about as many questions about her as it does the Army.)

  • Anne

    Type “Barack Hussein Obama” into Google and almost all of your early hits will be from extremely right-wing sites trying to discredit him. Type in “Barack Obama” and the results are mostly mainstream news outlets. That’s because groups that want to emphasize that Obama is “dangerous” (and/or secretly a Muslim) know that using his middle name is an effective tool.

    The name “Hussein” is seen by a significant portion of English-speaking Americans as a Muslim name. Obviously, they’re wrong, but do you honestly think that most Americans think “Oh, Hussein is Arabic for ‘good’ and could easily be the name of a Christian Arab” before they think “Saddam Hussein”? The AP story was about people’s perceptions of this woman and her name, not about the realities of Arab vs. Muslim names, because most Americans are unaware of those distinctions.

    • Anne

      That said, I do agree it would have been a better article if they had interviewed Muslims and/or other people with Arabic names to get their stories as well.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      *** because most Americans are unaware of those distinctions.***

      But isn’t it part of the AP’s job to help clarify those distinctions rather than just pass them along as if it were true that Hussein is a “Muslim name?”

      • Anne

        Ideally, they would have done so more explicitly, but the fact that she’s Catholic (which they point out immediately after giving her name) makes it pretty clear that those perceptions are incomplete at best.

    • Parker

      “Because most Americans are unaware of those distinctions”

      This woman in this story isn’t claiming to be harassed by “most Americans” but rather, a specific subgroup of Americans… Soldiers in the U.S. Army. Given the fact that the Army, and a very high percentage of the Soldiers currently serving, have spent a significant amount of time in the last 10 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think it’s fair to say that most Soldiers are better informed than your average American about the Arabic world, and Muslim names, and the fact that Arabic does not necessarily mean Muslim.

      Even those who have not served in Iraq or Afghanistan certainly get more training in these subjects than the average American… so I’m not sure that “most Americans” is the standard we should be using here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.manning.923 Stephen Manning

    In a world where Arabs are 90% Muslim, it’s disingenuous to blame anyone for thinking that Hussein is a Muslim name. And in Obama’s case, it is, being the name his grandfather took when he converted to Islam, and then passed on to Obama’s father.

  • Pingback: One, two, trend: Godbeat pros changing jobs!


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