The (irrelevant) past of Dr. David Dao

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You might not know David Dao personally; but if you’ve been following the news of late, then you definitely know of him.

He’s the man who was dragged off a United Airlines flight over the weekend. And while much has been written about the public relations disaster that has been United’s response to what happened, there’s another thread to this story that deserves attention: Dao’s past.

More specifically, is Dao’s past relevant?

The daily CJR.com newsletter picks up the details.

As United Airlines continued its master class in how not to handle a crisis, the eyes of the media world turned to The Louisville Courier-Journal’s decision to dig into the past of a 69-year-old doctor who was dragged from a flight out of Chicago on Sunday. “Passenger removed from United flight has troubled past,” read the since-changed headline on the paper’s website.

While noting that the Courier-Journal produced solid initial coverage of the Dr. David Dao’s violent removal from the flight, CJR’s David Uberti says that the story on Dao resorted 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 question that keeps tripping up reporters and editors is simple: What value is added to a story by digging years, sometimes decades, into a victim’s past?

As Uberti notes, the most famous example of this frustrating genre comes from a New York Times front-pager on Ferguson, Missouri teenager Michael Brown. Citing minor run-ins with authorities and a recent turn to rapping, the Times wrote, “Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel.” The piece birthed the phrase “no angel’d” to refer to the media practice of dragging a victim’s reputation through the mud. Many on social media saw that as exactly what happened with Dao.

Courier-Journal Executive Editor Joel Christopher defended his paper’s decision to publish the story by arguing that Dao’s past was fairly well known in Louisville. “Dr. Dao is somebody who is not unfamiliar to people in our coverage area.” Christopher told CJR. “His original case was pretty high profile…To not acknowledge that history and context would be unusual, frankly.” Context is one thing, but the Courier-Journal used a headline placed in a prominent spot on its website to trumpet the reporting. The disconnect seems to be between the Courier-Journal’s view of this as a local issue and the reality that it was a leading story around the country and the world.

Whenever a little-known figure becomes part of a major news story, journalists will naturally want to learn more about his or her background. The question becomes whether any information discovered is relevant to the story at hand and worthy of appearing in print or on air. Uberti writes that “In a time of hand-wringing over trust of media, assignment editors would be wise to think twice.”

They would indeed.

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