This post has been updated with comments from journalism experts.
Days after United Airlines passenger David Dao was violently removed by security officials from an overbooked flight, his local newspaper, The Courier-Journal, published a report detailing the man’s completely unrelated “troubled past” and printed photos of his home and office. This the latest in an irresponsible pattern in which media attempt to recast nonwhite victims as criminals rather than interrogating the institutional structures motivating instances of violence.
On Sunday, videos emerged online of three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers violently dragging a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, KY. The videos, taken by fellow passengers from several different angles, show three officers physically removing the passenger, Dr. David Dao, from his seat, pulling him to the ground and injuring his face in the process, then dragging his limp body off the plane. In contrast to the raw violence captured in the videos, United Airlines’ “lukewarm” response has so far been riddled with euphemisms, and a letter to United employees disparaged Dao as “disruptive and belligerent.”
By Tuesday morning, the passenger’s hometown Louisville newspaper, The Courier-Journal, had published a report detailing Dao’s completely unrelated criminal record from over a decade ago. The report also included photos of his house and office (the photo of his house appears to have since been removed from the post). This reporting was not a matter of public interest, nor was it relevant to the incident in any way -- instead, it acted as an attempt to redirect public conversation from corporate power, institutional violence, and potential racism to a singular focus on an individual’s past actions.
Quality journalism holds power to account. But we’ve seen journalists focusing instead on investigating individuals who have been subject to institutional violence before -- and writers are highlighting the ethical implications of this continuing practice, even as the paper defends its piece and others gear up to engage in the same character assassination:
In what way does a story about the United Airline victim's past serve the public interest? https://t.co/f3jkVB0mhD
— Tim Mak (@timkmak) April 11, 2017
How is this relevant? This is really unnecessary. https://t.co/R1pCZplFQu
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) April 11, 2017
pretty sure the Chicago PD has a much more troubled past https://t.co/5BgRWu6kWx
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) April 11, 2017
David Dao, dragged off by United goons, will now have his past dragged through the media. Editors, you can stop this https://t.co/cnnJjhnTo5
— Gabriel Snyder (@gabrielsnyder) April 11, 2017
Guy gets his head bashed and the local paper starts digging for dirt on him. https://t.co/w65e7IEXP6
— Byron Tau (@ByronTau) April 11, 2017
— Ben Norton (@BenjaminNorton) April 11, 2017
“David Dao, passenger removed from United flight, a doctor with troubled past” doesn't really sound like “his side of the story” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ https://t.co/i5qcgyDWbJ
— Alex Abad-Santos (@alex_abads) April 11, 2017
Since we're digging up “troubled pasts” now, here's just a sliver of United's. pic.twitter.com/aV23qO9S8v
— Christopher Ingraham (@_cingraham) April 11, 2017
In comments to Media Matters reporter Joe Strupp, journalism experts and reporters were critical of the Courier-Journal’s decision to publish Dao’s history.
Tom Fiedler, dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, said he was “appalled that the Courier-Journal would dredge up this passenger’s personal history, which is not only irrelevant to the incident but is tied to a crime that occurred 13 years ago and has been fully adjudicated. The effect of this article is to further victimize the victim.”
Former NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard said the article was “such an overreach.” She added, “His personal life, troubles, work history is of absolutely no news value. That is one of the clearest invasions of privacy I've heard about in a long time. The Louisville Courier-Journal should be ashamed of itself. I'd love to hear their justification. They and United's treatment are newsworthy because each treated Mr. Dao and his family without any empathy or humanity.”
“If they took advantage of things in his personal background to make a story, the information would have to be very important for the public to know,” according to Bill Kovach, founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. “Otherwise it is, in effect, a commercial gimmick to capitalize on a public event to gather eyeballs.” Kovach pointed out that the paper “could also have done a story on the personal background of the officer who was dragging him.”
John Ferré, a journalism professor at the University of Louisville, said Dao’s past conviction “had nothing to do with security staff dragging him off a United Airlines flight for which he had purchased a seat. Whether the report has harmed Dr. Dao is unclear, but the irrelevance of the information to this story seems certain.”
Former Courier-Journal staffer and current University of Kentucky journalism professor Al Cross said, “There is a natural curiosity among the public about a person who would object to this kind of treatment and would be one of the four people bumped who would not cooperate.” He added, "That being said, I wouldn’t make this the featured story on the home page. They seem to be overdoing it. I understand the desire to get readership on a story that has international implications. It is a local story, but one of the elements of journalism is proportional. In the age of hunger for audience, it's fairly common for a wide range of news media to make too much out of things.”*
*Note: This story has been updated to make clear Cross was saying the paper may have been “overdoing it” with the promotion of the story, not the initial reporting.
Image by Sarah Wasko.