The Courier-Journal is facing a wave of local and national backlash on social media stemming from an article on the “troubled history” of David Dao, the Elizabethtown, Ky., doctor who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight on Sunday.
Cell phone videos of the incident have gone viral and erupted into a public relations nightmare for United, but now The Courier-Journal is in the midst of a headache of its own, as hundreds of social media users around the country have accused the Gannett-owned newspaper of victim-blaming or hyping an incident from 14 years ago in order to gain clicks.
In the original version of the article online, C-J reporter Morgan Watkins wrote that Dao “was arrested in 2003 and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses,” after which he temporarily surrendered his medical license. The headline initially read that Dao had a “troubled past,” with the first sentence of the article stating he “has had a troubled history in Kentucky.” The headline and first paragraph have since been altered, and the story has been significantly revised and updated with additional reporting. The word “troubled” no longer appears anywhere in the article.
The Courier-Journal’s “#BREAKING” tweet on Dao’s past was instantly met with derision across the country, including from many members of the national media who found it distasteful and exploitative. Local WDRB education reporter Toni Konz, who formerly worked at the C-J, tweeted: “Victim shaming is the kind of thing that erodes public confidence in the media. Focus should be on @, not victim.”
Asked about the newspaper’s decision-making process in running the story and their response to critics, Courier-Journal executive editor Joel Christopher told Insider Louisville that he is comfortable with the way they handled the story.
“There can be reasonable disagreements about at what points you hit publish during iterative reporting,” wrote Christopher. “I’m comfortable with when we decided to publish in this case.”
Christopher continued: “This was one of dozens of pieces we’ve done on the incident, and the doctor’s identity is important to telling the story.
Identifying him without acknowledging his past — which was reported on the Louisville market — would be unusual.”
Asked if Watkins pitched the story or it was assigned to her, Christopher replied that it was assigned, as “she’s one of several reporters who have had a hand in the reporting.”
An updated version of the story states that Dao “is familiar to many Kentuckians who recall his convictions on drug-related offenses in 2004,” a point that was again emphasized by Christopher in a subsequent statement given to the Columbia Journalism Review in response to the backlash.
“Dr. Dao is somebody who is not unfamiliar to people in our coverage area,” stated Christopher. “His original case was pretty high profile. It’s a name that doesn’t come out of the blue. To not acknowledge that history and context would be unusual, frankly.”
According to The Courier-Journal’s online archives, Dao’s legal issues were mentioned in three briefs published in 2003 and 2004, each around four paragraphs long.
Below are a sample of the tweets criticizing The Courier-Journal for the article:
So glad we’re now in the point of a viral news cycle where we tar and feather a guy who never in any way asked for publicity.
— Alex Koppelman (@AlexKoppelman) April 11, 2017
— Andrew Couts (@AndrewCouts) April 11, 2017
— Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) April 11, 2017
— Joel (@JoelNihlean) April 11, 2017
This story will be updated.