United Airlines passenger David Dao was forcibly removed from his flight — a flight he had booked and paid for — and became the subject of viral videos shortly thereafter.
But does that make him a public figure? That’s an important question to consider while judging whether journalists should dig into Dao’s life and publicize his past.
Two stories emerged Tuesday morning on Dao’s past. A story by the Louisville Courier-Journal reported Dao, a doctor, has a “troubled history” with his medical practice. On TMZ, a much more salacious headline: “UNITED AIRLINES DOCTOR CONVICTED OF EXCHANGING DRUGS FOR SEX.”
Both reports say roughly the same thing, although the TMZ language is more blunt: Dao was arrested 14 years ago after writing fraudulent prescriptions for pain medication, and he “indicated he accepted sexual favors from an associate in exchange for reducing a debt that associate owed him.”
Dao was convicted of multiple felonies, was placed on five years of probation and lost his medical license for 10 years, the reports said.
Yes, Dao committed a crime — and that comes with consequences. But the public reporting on it is uncomfortable, particularly in the Courier-Journal’s case — because TMZ and newspapers should have different standards for what is newsworthy.
TMZ’s brand is to expose anything and everything if it has to do with the public record; the outlet is splashy and controversial and digs up the dirt. That’s how it’s been for years.
But newspapers have always had a mission to serve the public interest first, and, in theory, should carefully examine whether such stories are justified.
Remember, Dao didn’t ask to be in this spotlight — he just wanted to fly home. The reason for all the attention is because of how airlines treat passengers — not Dao specifically. So at a newspaper, editors should ask themselves: “Does this information help move the story forward? Does this serve our readers?”
I would argue publicizing Dao’s past does not do either of those things. Writing fraudulent prescriptions aren’t relevant to being physically dragged off an overbooked flight, and Dao isn’t the bad guy who deserves additional scrutiny — he’s the victim here.
Even if you think he should have obeyed authorities, United should have handled the situation better (how about increasing the amount of the voucher offers until some other passenger got off the plane? That would have been much cheaper for United than the bad publicity it’s getting now).
I’m not going to get outraged about TMZ’s reporting, because that’s been the TMZ style for years. But when newspapers follow that path, they risk damaging credibility with their readers while gaining a few thousand clicks — the kind of short-term thinking United now knows all too well.