The Legal History Of That United Passenger Is Not News

By now, you must know about the whole United Airlines controversy. On Monday, the internet exploded when a video of a man being violently removed from a United flight started making rounds. There were calls for a boycott, one official was put on administrative leave, and people on social media dragged the airline for its less-than-stellar internal memo.
But none of that matters to some reporters, who have decided to pursue a storyline that we've seen way too many times before: the "he's no angel" narrative.
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Morgan Watkins, a journalist with the Louisville-based Courier-Journal, not only identified the passenger in the United video, but she also dug up the man's legal history.
"David Dao, passenger removed from United flight, a doctor with troubled past," the headline blares. The story expands on some offenses the man committed in in 2004. The implication is clear: Dao, who was brutally assaulted and unwillingly thrust into the spotlight, is not a real victim. He has a "troubled past," you see. He's no angel.
One of the most outrageous examples of this kind of narrative can be traced to 2014, when The New York Times shared an incredibly problematic opening paragraph in a story about Michael Brown, the Black teenager from Ferguson, MO who was fatally shot by the police.
"Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life," the story read.
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By saying that Brown was "no angel," the author almost implied the teenager deserved to be shot. By bringing up Dao's legal history and events that happened over a decade ago, the Courier-Journal and others such as ABC 7 News' Lisa Fletcher contribute to the idea that maybe he did something wrong that required him to be forcibly removed from the plane in such a brutal manner.
Watkins argued in a tweet that she had published the story, "Not to justify [what had happened]. Just identifying who he is for the public." But the problem is that Dao is a private citizen, not a public figure. "Identifying who he is for the public" should be limited to his name, age, his hometown, and his profession. His legal issues, which we presume were resolved because he's still able to practice medicine, are not relevant in any way to the United Airlines story.
Would you dig up the sexual history of a rape survivor or the medical records of a domestic violence survivor? No. Because those things are in no way relevant to a case.
And digging up dirt on the victim of an incident is not only in bad taste; it's actually unethical. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics makes it abundantly clear: Just because some information, such as court records, is legally accessible, it doesn't mean it's ethically justifiable to publish it. Hell, the code even advises reporters to "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
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What Watkins, Fletcher, and innumerable other reporters are doing is frankly disgusting. They are forgoing their ethical responsibilities as reporters just for the sake of clicks and ratings. They are also basically helping the abusive United Airlines team by publishing information that could be useful to them if Dao ever decides to sue.
At least Twitter isn't letting these two journalists get away with this. Just look at the outcry, below.
It's imperative for the news media to do better, especially in an age when fake news and distrust are rampant. Let's make it abundantly clear: As journalists, we have a responsibility. This is not it. Do better.
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