People’s pasts are littered with publicly available stories. How far should journalists reach back when a person finds themselves in the middle of a news story?
The internet filled with outrage on Sunday after a man was dragged from a United Airlines flight departing Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. Some of that ire turned on Tuesday toward journalists who decided to learn more about the man.
The Courier-Journal in Louisville published an in-depth story about the past of Dr. David Dao, who was dragged and bloodied during Sunday’s incident. The story detailed Dao’s past including substantial legal troubles. Meanwhile, a reporter for the District of Columbia’s ABC affiliate known as WJLA published a post on Twitter showing documents she said detailed Dao’s “troubled past.”
People responded to The Courier-Journal’s story and the WJLA Twitter post with swift condemnation. The concerns largely focused on the theory that Dao’s past is irrelevant, because it does not excuse officials’ behaviors that resulted in his injuries.
Many people on Twitter and Facebook quoted the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which emphasizes that journalists should balance the public’s need for “information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, the Code says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures who seek, power, influence or attention.”
The concerns shared by members of the public were justified, but there are some caveats.
First, many of the responses to the individual journalists were reprehensible. Attacks against anyone – including journalists – are never justified. Additionally, people who want to point out ethical issues erode their own case when they become threatening and – frankly – juvenile.
As for the facts of this case, it’s important to remember that people sometimes involuntarily become public figures or gain notoriety against their will. Journalists have a responsibility to look at those people and decide what information is relevant to the public.
The executive editor of The Courier-Journal told CJR that Dao is known to people in the area due to his past legal troubles.
“His original case was pretty high profile,” Joel Christopher told CJR. “It’s a name that doesn’t come out of the blue. To not acknowledge that history and context would be unusual, frankly.”
I agree that The Courier-Journal had an obligation to its readers to point out the man is the same person they heard of years ago, but that could likely be accomplished in a paragraph of another story.
As for WJLA’s story that ultimately never materialized, there is little justification for a local news organization outside the Louisville area to focus on Dao’s past. Such a story would look like it’s simply pandering to lurid curiosity.
These situations challenge journalists and the editorial leadership of news organizations to make tough decisions. Newsrooms should harness this debate to discuss how it would handle a similar situation. As each person in the world continues to leave a growing trail on the internet, these challenges will become more common.