Paper fires back at criticism of article on United passenger’s past

United Airlines via Wikimedia Commons

Rare is the occasion when digital mobs are unquestionably justified in their thirst for blood. But United Airlines provided more than ample reason Monday when a ticketed passenger on an overbooked flight who declined to leave the plane was yanked out of his seat, slammed against an armrest, and dragged down the aisle. Videos of a screaming and bleeding David Dao quickly ignited on social media, and the United PR shop’s passive and robotic response to this violence squirted yet more lighter fluid on an already blazing dumpster fire.

The Louisville Courier-Journal was all over the story from the Louisville-bound flight out of Chicago, publishing numerous pieces including an eyewitness account, a column condemning United’s actions, and the airline CEO’s response, among others. One of its Day 2 takes, however, seemed to resort to a familiar shade-the-victim reflex that many publications have been unable or unwilling to shake despite numerous instances of pushback in recent years.

The lede of the Courier-Journal’s story:

When airport security yanked David Dao off an overbooked flight Sunday, bloodying him as they dragged him down the aisle, he was thrust into the international spotlight. Dao, an Elizabethtown doctor, is familiar to many Kentuckians who recall his convictions on drug-related offenses in 2004.

The piece goes on to detail how Dao “was arrested in 2003 and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses after an undercover investigation.” The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure alleged that he was involved in fraudulent prescriptions and was sexually involved with a patient. He was convicted on multiple felony counts in 2004 and forced to give up his medical license, only gaining approval to resume practicing, under certain conditions, in 2015.

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Some of the torches and pitchforks seen Monday reappeared in response to the piece. The fact that the Courier-Journal tweeted the item with an all-caps “#BREAKING”—as if it were some major scoop—only added to the outrage.

The piece delving into victims’ backstories is a familiar one, and the Courier-Journal’s conjured memories of some of the genre’s famously cringeworthy examples. The most controversial case came on the front page of The New York Times, where a sensationalist story marred by racial undertones described Michael Brown, an 18 year old killed by police, as “no angel.” More recently, New York tabloids zeroed in on the criminal history of a homeless New York man murdered in an apparently racist attack. Such victim-blaming or -shaming pops up in sexual assault reporting as well.

The by-now boilerplate criticism of the genre goes like this: Just because a person falls victim to violence or trauma that piques public interest, journalists do not have license to unearth unrelated bad things that person did previously. The stories surely get attention—hate-reads are clicks, too—but it’s hard to see what journalistic value is added for audiences in the vast majority of cases. In a time of hand-wringing over trust of media, assignment editors would be wise to think twice.

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The pushback to the Courier-Journal’s piece Tuesday followed the same pattern, with many commenters referring to the “no angel” description of Brown. In reply to one critic, the story’s reporter, Morgan Watkins, responded that her intent was “not to justify [United’s actions]. Just identifying who he is for the public.” Which public?

Executive Editor Joel Christopher added this explanation to CJR Tuesday, in full below:

I want to urge anyone from a national or international perspective to understand the full scope of our coverage here. This is one of dozens of pieces that we’ve done on the story. Dr. Dao is somebody who is not unfamiliar to people in our coverage area. His original case was pretty high profile. It’s a name that doesn’t come out of the blue. To not acknowledge that history and context would be unusual, frankly.

There are two things here: Some folks are just seeing that piece and not the full scope of our coverage. So if that’s the only piece you think we’ve done, of course you’ll zero in on it.

Secondly, we didn’t account for the fact that some people might just hit on that piece, and we didn’t put the necessary context for a national or international audience to understand. We’ve since done that. There’s information that’s pretty vital that you wouldn’t immediately understand if you’re not from our market.

The breadth of the Courier-Journal’s coverage doesn’t absolve it from the fact that Dao’s criminal history is irrelevant to this bizarre episode. But Christopher does bring up an interesting wrinkle of local publishing in the digital age. When a story from an outlet’s backyard goes viral on a global scale, only a tiny fraction of audiences will be familiar with the players, plot, or stage. Should a journalist’s role be to serve their geographic community, or the global audience cocking back rotten tomatoes?

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.