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The video of Dr. David Dao being yanked and dragged off a United flight has gone viral, with countless news stories and tweets about the incident and the airline’s reaction.

The Louisville Courier-Journal waded into controversy by reporting on Dao’s criminal conviction more than a decade earlier.

Dao’s flight was from Chicago to Louisville. The Courier-Journal‘s April 11 story was headlined, “David Dao, passenger removed from United flight, now in spotlight.”

Journalist Morgan Watkins’ story lede originally mentioned Dao’s 13-year-old drug conviction, according to Columbia Journalism Review:

“When airport security yanked David Dao off an overbooked flight Sunday, bloodying him as they dragged him down the aisle, he was thrust into the international spotlight. Dao, an Elizabethtown doctor, is familiar to many Kentuckians who recall his convictions on drug-related offenses in 2004.”

The story lede has since been updated to remove the second sentence and include more information about the United flight incident before delving into Dao’s past.

The Courier-Journal‘s executive editor, Joel Christopher, defended the article as fair but admitted to CNN the original story “didn’t do a good enough job of explaining that context” of Dao’s past to its Kentucky audience.

“The fact is that Dr. Dao is known to our local audience,” Christopher told CNN. “His previous case was covered by media here. It’s a pretty well-known case. So it would be unusual in any market for any news organization to not acknowledge when someone who’s been thrust into the spotlight has previously been in the news.”

In a statement to Columbia Journalism Review, Christopher again noted the Courier-Journal has published “dozens of pieces” on the United incident and Dao’s “original case was pretty high profile.” He argued it would be “unusual” to not report on Dao’s past.

Christopher doesn’t mention in his statements that Dao’s case was more than a decade ago, and likely not still “well-known” to its readers.

iMediaEthics has asked Christopher why the newspaper published the information and how many complaints it received. We also asked if the Courier-Journal itself covered Dao’s conviction and charges in 2003 and 2004. iMediaEthics search of the Courier-Journal website doesn’t produce any results proving so, however, the archive might not date back that far.

A USA Today spokesperson provided iMediaEthics with a statement from Christopher in response to our inquiry to him. That statement repeated what Christopher had told others:

“In reporting on the video of the passenger being yanked from a Louisville-bound United flight, the Courier-Journal discovered it had previously written about the man who was injured. Tuesday’s local angle was just one of multiple stories and videos about the incident. The Courier-Journal works to connect its local readers to events in the news and this is one instance in which the local nuance was lost in the national conversation.  When the story was first published, we did not provide the necessary context for a national or international audience to understand, but quickly added that information.”

Scott Leadingham, the Director of Education for the Society of Professional Journalists, tweeted in this case that the SPJ ethics code advises journalists that just because they possess information legally, doesn’t mean they should publish it.

SPJ ethics chair Andrew Seaman told iMediaEthics by e-mail that since the Courier-Journal is local, “Dao’s past is relevant to its readers since he previously made local headlines.”

“I don’t think it was necessary to go into such granular detail, however,” he went on. “I think it’s possible to briefly say the man is from the local area and made headlines at one time for X, Y and Z. Local readers would get the needed info without others feeling the paper was overly intrusive.”

Further, Seaman commented, “Additionally, I think this is a good example of when an editor’s note on a story explaining its purpose could have made a world of difference.”

The Courier-Journal quoted an office manager for Dao’s former employer, and detailed his 2003 arrest, 2004 felony conviction for “obtaining drugs by fraud and deceit,” through which he had to give up his medical license for ten years. “Broadcast and print coverage of Dao’s arrest, conviction and sentencing made his name familiar to Kentuckians,” the Courier-Journal stated in its article.

Gossip site TMZ also reported on Dao’s past, noting he won more than $200,000 playing World Series of Poker. A separate TMZ story on Dao also goes into his criminal past.

CNN and CJR both stated that it has become almost standard practice for media outlets to report on the backgrounds of people who inadvertently end up in the public eye. High profile examples listed include Ken Bone, who asked a question at a presidential debate, Gary Coe, who was part of a group Jimmy Kimmel surprised by bringing them on the Academy Awards, Michael Brown, the Ferguson 18-year-old killed by police, and a homeless man killed in New York recently.

Tweets about media diving into Dao’s past focused on the fact Dao hasn’t sought publicity and his past was unrelated to how United Airlines responded.

The SPJ’s Director of Education Scott Leadingham tweeted, reminding journalists should follow the ethics code, which dictates “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

He also reminded the code states “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication” and to treat “members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

Further, the ethics code states “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

UPDATED: 4/12/2017 10:23 AM EST With statement from Christopher

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Why was United Passenger Dr. David Dao’s 13-year-old conviction newsworthy? Courier-Journal defend

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