It didn’t take long for the latest incident on United Airlines to become a white-hot center of debate among journalists.

The Louisville Courier-Journal on Tuesday began taking flak for revealing what it called the “troubled past” of David Dao, the doctor who was dragged off a United flight Sunday after refusing to deplane to make room for company employees.

Among other things, the Courier-Journal’s story revealed that Dao was convicted of a series of drug-related offenses that stemmed from an agreement to provide a patient with drugs in exchange for sexual favors.

Shortly after the Courier-Journal went with the story, journalists began criticizing the decision to publish it:

Joel Christopher, the executive editor of the Courier-Journal, told BuzzFeed News that the national audience for the story was “jumping to an incorrect conclusion” without the necessary context.

‘This is an individual, who because of his past case, is known to people in the area,’ [Christopher] said. “Referring to him without referring to [his past] would be highly unusual.”

Christopher said that within the local context, the story — one of several in the Courier-Journal’s coverage of the incident — made sense, but that that a huge portion of the audience came from outside the local market.

Was the Courier-Journal’s decision to publish details about Dao’s past justified by the situation? Below, Poynter faculty members Indira Lakshmanan, Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride weigh in on the story.

Indira Lakshmanan, Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics

Dao has a criminal record, but that doesn’t seem relevant to this story because he hasn’t been charged with being disruptive towards United Airlines officials or fellow passengers.

He’s only accused of resisting — and resisting what? He wasn’t resisting arrest, and he wasn’t accused of a crime. He resisted being forced off a plane for which he had bought a ticket and had a confirmed seat.

As for his 12-year-old record, however sordid it may sound, it doesn’t justify or mitigate United randomly selecting a paying customer whose background they don’t know and physically forcing him off the plane against his will (bloodying his face in the process) to make room for the company’s employees.

In the end, this man’s history seems relevant to me only if it somehow directly applied: Did he offer anyone illegal prescription drugs in order to stay on the plane? No. Was he violent with anyone? No.

He defied security guards insistence that he get up but was limp in the aisle when he was being dragged off. Then, he ran back onto the plane and tried to get his seat back.

Does he have a record of air rage? No. Is he on the no-fly list? No. So his past record may be interesting to his local paper, but I don’t see it as relevant to the larger story of whether an airline should be able to treat paying passengers this way.

Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online

Records from The Kentucky Medical Board published by The Smoking Gun show that Dao was previously put on a “corrective action plan” for disruptive behavior. That past behavior may give us a window into a second video that reveals more about the incident.

This video is a precursor to the dragging incident. On it, Dao refuses an officer’s request to get off the plane and says that he would rather go to jail than deplane. The authorities warned him he would be dragged off the plane, but Dao still refused.

Dao’s criminal history is relevant to Courier-Journal readers because his conduct has made news in the area before. In 2005, The Associated Press reported that he was facing 98 charges of illegally prescribing and trafficking prescription painkillers. The story also said that he was convicted on charges of exchanging prescriptions and checks for sexual favors.

The Courier-Journal’s readers might have wondered if the convicted physician in their community was the same guy making worldwide news.

There are lessons to be gleaned from the way the Courier-Journal presented the story. Be especially careful with the tone of the headlines and social media posts. The Courier-Journal posted the news of the doctor’s background as a “breaking news” tweet, with language (“yanked”) that seems flip.

The Courier-Journal also could have gotten ahead of the story by explaining before the backlash began their decision to publish it. Social media controversies usually do not break in favor of journalists, and this one was no exception. The reporter and the paper are both under attack on social media for reporting details that lots of people say are not relevant to what happened on the plane.

Kelly McBride, vice president for academic programs

Journalists have an ethical obligation to present Dao’s history in a contextual manner. It’s not completely irrelevant. But it’s also not directly relevant to the fact that United kicked him off the plane. And it certainly doesn’t justify what happened to him. The tangential nature of the information places a burden on editors to be responsible for the following:

  • The tone in which you publish and distribute information.
  • The relative amount of space devoted to the tangential historical information compared to other background information.
  • The tone of the headlines, tweets, graphics, teases and other promotional material. If that tone suggests that Dao’s history justifies or explains what happened, you’ve overstepped.

Journalists’ first loyalty is to their readers. But journalists should certainly pay attention to the interests of Dao and his family and the broader Chinese community and other immigrants. As stories address Dao’s background, reporters might consider the stake of other individuals involved in those events, including those who worked with Dao and people who might have been harmed by him.

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