Letters: Was United passenger’s past relevant to his removal? Readers weigh in.

Last week, staff writer David Uberti covered the United Airline debacle by critiquing the Louisville Courier-Journal’s decision to publish details on passenger David Dao’s criminal history. The following week Uberti revisited the topic in our member’s newsletter.

Many CJR readers have weighed in with letters. Here’s a selection:

I disagree with your notion that the passenger’s past behavior was irrelevant. While United did make a mistake, the passenger appears to have contributed to the problem substantially—or at least there’s a strong possibility that he did. In that case, his past and very public willingness to behave outside the norm is relevant. Inform the readers, and let them decide. But congrats for raising the issue and keeping it going.

John Ford
Nonfiction Producers Association
Justice Network

 

I agree with you. His background adds nothing important to the story, is not something readers need to know to be informed, and is not the issue. The issue is United’s actions, not the individual’s background.

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Steven A. Raucher, Ph.D., J.D.
Professor, Department of Communication, Film, & Media Studies
The Laurel Vlock Center for Convergent Media

 

Newspapers today are an endangered species that behave as if cornered in an inescapable  environment. So a newspaper which is trying to survive will act in simple Darwinian survival mode. That is an entailment of an almost instantaneous news cycle that leaves little grace period to thoroughly assimilate, corroborate, and validate a story’s facts and their relationships. Hence, the context necessarily—and in most cases inadvertently—suffers. Stories in which the context is deliberately falsified or manipulated to present the story in a false light, are simply lies and people will soon lose patience with those news outlets—unless they like drinking that kool-aid.

Context is vital to the accuracy of any story. By the same token, failure to provide context when it explains the circumstances of a story is a falsification of the story. So, if he was on drugs, and if that caused his behavior, then that conviction would be part of the story. But there was zero evidence of that, and so that was not part of the circumstances of the story. Thus, his prior conviction has nothing to do with the story at this stage.

John White

 

If I were a Courier-Journal reader, I’d wonder whether the United passenger was the same person local media had reported on a few years back in a drug case. The Courier-Journal had to mention the connection. The question is whether media elsewhere should pick up the story. It would be difficult to ignore a report from the Courier-Journal about such a hot topic.

George Fattman
Columbia JSchool ’64

 

The Courier-Journal was correct in reporting Dao’s record. No one complained when we were told his wife and four children were all doctors—info that gave him status. So how could anyone complain at reporting misdeeds that give us a fuller picture of the man?

David Jones

 

Good work. My response to the kitchen sink and fake-news arguments against the use of judgment:

Judgment is the duty of journalists and editors, always. We shouldn’t be afraid to use it; it is what makes us professionals rather than technicians, competent rather than lazy. We use judgment in our selection of stories to report, in constructing the lead, in deciding whether to use direct or indirect quotations, and in determining whether material is relevant to the story. Honest judgment may not always lead to perfect decisions, but it always needs to be in the decision-making process.

Wesley H. Maurer, Jr., publisher
The St. Ignace (Michigan) News

 

I have no interest in heckling you, just trying to persuade you to take another look.

When I read your piece last week, I also disagreed. What if the police officer who plucked him out of his seat and threw him on the ground had a history of excessive force? Would that be relevant? Or if the flight attendant had a history of complaints and picking fights with passengers? You bet his attorney will be looking into their backgrounds as part of his inevitable lawsuit against United Airlines.

I saw another video posted by a different passenger where the officer warns Dao that he’d be forcibly removed if he didn’t comply, and Dao still wouldn’t. It takes two to tango, or in this case tangle.

State of mind is relevant in criminal cases because it helps explain bizarre or out-of-the-ordinary behavior. We want to know why someone behaved a certain way. Since the others asked to give up their seats complied, my question is why didn’t Dao? And that is where his background might inform us, because it shows he has used questionable judgment. Similarly, if we learn the officer has been reprimanded for excessive force in the past, that would also explain how the situation escalated. Bottom line, I think everyone’s history helps us understand why Dao’s situation ended differently than that of the other passengers asked to leave.

In any event, I’m glad I joined CJR!

Best,
Judy Gonda

 

I respectfully disagree, perhaps because I grew up as an old-school journalist (about 30 years in the business). I’m now a magazine editor and writer.

If indeed Mr. Dao had been prominent in the news prior to this incident, readers would have asked, “hey, isn’t that the same guy who…”  To ignore that would reinforce the pernicious view that newspapers manipulate the news, that they have an agenda. I began as a civil rights and anti-war movement reporter in the most volatile news period in US history. I learned very quickly that the essence of good reporting is straightforward, honest, and no-holds-barred. All with a sense of perspective, of course.

Now, the question of how the negative information on Mr. Dao was reported is a different matter. There was no indication his previous behavior was a factor, so yes, I would have reported it, but far down in the story.

Edward Martin
Senior Editor
Business North Carolina

 

Suppose the Courier-Journal’s front-page story in 2004 had been about Dao’s heroic swimming rescue of two children whose canoe overturned in the middle of the Ohio River during a thunderstorm. If you’re the Journal’s city editor, don’t you revisit the rescue story in an 8-graf sidebar, including an update on the rescued kids (now young adults) if the reporter can find them? Or are past good acts just as irrelevant as past bad acts?

Herb Cook

 

You and others do not seem to understand the way the doctor behaved after being dragged. He went back on the plane, making odd remarks because he had a huge concussion.

The context that is MISSING from the story is not the doctor’s previous problems, it is an understanding of what being slammed in the head and then having your head banged repeatedly on the sides of the seats down the aisle does to a person. Frankly, it would not have surprised me if he had wound up dead from the head injuries they gave him.

Do you people not remember cases of hardballs hitting a member of the audience at baseball games and then, a few hours later, winding up dead?

Caroline Paulson

 

None of the responses you provided, nor your own piece, were based on the full story. In fact we still may not have the full story. There was much confusion in the original reporting about what actually precipitated the doctor’s response. Reports from his fellow passengers varied. There was no mention of his wife until much later, and the full extent of his injuries were unclear until several days later. A good reporter asks as many question as he or she can and when no answer or conflicting answers are given, that should be reported. I understand your concern about reporting the doctor’s past conflicts with the judicial system, but that is public knowledge and the Courier-Journal would be remiss, in my opinion, if they did not make mention of it. It only came out several days later that he doctor and his wife had been on vacation in California and were in Chicago to take a connecting flight to Louisville. It has since been reported that there were no additional flights to Louisville that day. I can only think of my response if that had happened to me.

George Harrison
Retired from UPI and CBS News
Bel Air, MD

 

[Dao’s] bizarre behavior is difficult to understand without knowledge of his background. The other three passengers apparently left without disturbing the peace. The proper place to protest such treatment is in the office of airline management or in court. In any event, the reader is entitled to know everything about the passenger that might have motivated him, or at least explain his actions. It’s not the newspaper’s job to hide information from its readers.

James K. Sunshine
CJR member

 

I don’t think it is so cut and dry. Would it be right not to inform [Courier-Journal] readers it is the same person?”

Karlene Goller
former deputy general counsel of The Los Angeles Times

 

I was stuck by your statement that “the fact that Dao’s criminal history is irrelevant to this bizarre episode.” Isn’t your journalistic judgement is just that, judgement, not fact? Isn’t it reasonable for people to ask, be they journalists or mere mortals, how bumping a seated passenger escalated to a bloody confrontation? Isn’t it reasonable to consider that what happened might have had something to do with the conduct of the passenger as well as the conduct of the other parties involved? More broadly, isn’t the tendency to conflate fact and judgement (journalistic and otherwise) a major source of ‘alternative facts?’

Roger Wilson

 

What are we being asked to conclude? That the past must to be kept out of news stories whenever it threatens to introduce a note of moral ambiguity? Or, is it simply that the media need to cherry-pick those biographical details that reinforce the current narrative and bury all the others? There’s actually a term for that—slanted news.”

Michael Miner
Chicago Reader media critic

 

Editor’s note: The final response is from a column in the Chicago Reader and the last four letters also appeared in our weekly member’s newsletter. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.