Journalism debate: United passenger’s past exposed

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.

19 Replies to “Journalism debate: United passenger’s past exposed”

  1. I agree. He’s not a public figure. Not to mention he paid his debt to society for his wrong doing.

    Sadly, a function of the new click bait “journalism.”

  2. I completely agree with you as the facts now stand. The ONLY time I think you can raise his past is if the story takes a HUGE turn, and the facts point to shifting the blame to rest solely on his shoulders (don’t see that happening). Then, in legitimate journalism, you could build a case that he has a history of making bad decisions. But I’m old school. My journalism degree has been hanging on my wall gathering dust for 27 years. ????

  3. Unfortunately, Jeff, journalism degrees aren’t the only thing “yellowing” on walls. The practice of journalism is increasingly so every year that passes!

  4. Totally agree with you, there is no reason his past should have been brought up.

  5. I already like “Off-Week-Jeff.” What other non-Nascar and non-Survivor posts will you throw at us?

  6. I agree with you Jeff and appreciate your compassion.

    I also find it a little ironic that I didn’t know anything about his past until I read your article (I had seen headlines about the incident itself.)

    I understand the details are out there already, so you are reporting on what’s being reported. Yet I am sincerely interested in knowing your thought process about what to include in a story about what is being reported elsewhere, and whether the option of making it less easy for the uninformed reader to get the details was considered. Not trying to be nit picky or harsh here–sincerely curious.

    Thanks for all you are doing to make this a great experience for us!

    1. I agree with Gluck that Dao’s past should not have been revealed.

      I also agree with Beth that Gluck should not have revealed Dao’s past.

  7. Well said Jeff. These are two different stories, not a mashup of both. Report on each story on its own merits, fine.

    Great story.

  8. I agree with your sentiment.

    However, I disagree that United did anything wrong in this case. It’s an unfortunate fact of air travel that you are not garunteed passage because you bought a ticket. In this case, four people were inconvienced (and offered $800 and a hotel) to save hundreds of people being inconviened down the line.

    If this man had accepted the inconvenience and pursued his arguments up the proper channels, none of this would have been news.

    More importantly, if the cops (not affiliated with United in anyway) had acted a little more professionally, again, his would not have been news.

    These situations happen every single day. The only difference is how people to decide to react.

    I just can’t fault an airline who did everything as stated in all of their literature when purchasing a ticket. The cops and this individual are the real issue here.

    1. Actually Steve, according to FAA rules passengers would be entitled to up to $1375 in cash (not vouchers) for reaching their destination more than four hours late if they are bumped. The airlines try to be sneaky and get someone to accept a lower amount in voucher form rather than cash. Had they informed passengers of their rights I’m sure more people would have taken the cash. So yes, United is at fault through greed.

      And Jeff, great post. Spot on.

    2. Steve, you and I are of the same mind, EXCEPT that Dao was being evicted to make way for United employees. On that I do blame United. However, Dao should have cooperated and pursued his complaints through proper channels.

  9. I guess I live in an alternate universe, where one believes the best thing to do is treat others the way you want to be treated in the same situation. I don’t think there were any victims here, both were at fault.

    Anyone remember the Rodney King beating? If all you saw was the video of the cops hitting him with sticks you would think King was the victim. But when you learn how big he was, that he was out of his mind on PCP, and wouldn’t obey the officers and was resisting arrest, suddenly you have context. Should the cops had beaten him with clubs? No! Should King have resisted arrest? No!

    This case seems to me to be the same thing all over. The decision who was getting evicted from the plane was done randomly. Dao lost, he should have exited the plane like the others. He was out of line not to cooperate. Had they let him stay on the plane and choose someone else, THEN you have a victim! Should United had kicked him off the plane to make space for employees? Certainly not. Should United have physically hurt him? No.

    I am sorry Jeff, if we are to live in a civilized society, we have to learn to cooperate with each other. Both Dao and United were at fault.

  10. How about you write an article about the fact TMZ got it totally wrong and they have the wrong David Dao?

  11. He’s not a public figure, you are right. Whatever he did in the past he paid his due to society.

    Company culture at United,it doesn’t work what their slogan.I can stand these big corporation & the way they carry themselves.lack of respect for the customer to cover a logistic error.

    I see personnal from other company flying w partner all the time.You are on the road all the time Jeff,are you flying commercial & your flying on charter from Concord w some raceteams?

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