The ethics of bringing up a newsmaker’s past.

The complainant, Daniel McCarthy, felt that bringing up Dr. David Dao’s past legal problems was unethical because they had nothing to do with his violent removal from a United Airlines flight. He had a point - but the details were alluded to in an end-of-day wrap up. Since it had been so heavily covered, it was an acceptable editorial choice to briefly mention it in this context.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about two aspects of a report by Stephanie Mercier regarding Dr. David Dao, the passenger violently removed from a United Airlines flight to make room for United Airlines' off-duty crew members. The CEO of the airline had written a letter to employees defending their actions, which had caused a considerable backlash against the airline. On the second day of the story, Ms. Mercier was doing a roundup of events in a live conversation with Ian Hanomansing, anchor of the evening news programme on CBC News Network. You felt it was wrong that in naming Dr. Dao, Ms. Mercier also mentioned that “media reports have been bringing up his somewhat sordid past”. She added that his license had been suspended due to drug and fraud convictions, but that it was reinstated. You believe that this was completely irrelevant to the story and to repeat what other U.S. networks were reporting was stooping to the “lowest standards of news broadcasting.”

Knowing that TV media time is extremely expensive and tough choices have to be made to ensure succinct, relevant and compelling stories, why was a previous suspension and reinstatement of his medical license relevant to the story? Along the same line of reasoning would it have been ok for Ms. Mercier to advise viewers of Dr. Dao’s financial circumstances, or his marital, sexual or immigration status?

You noted that the purpose of the report should have been “to chronicle the fact United Airlines had arranged security to forcibly remove a passenger from the plane to accommodate their employees” and to “provide examples of how poorly the UA president had reacted to the media reports and articulated the reasons for UA’s conduct,” as well as to review how Canadian airlines handle similar situations or overbooking. You thought the reference to Dr. Dao’s past detracted from the story that had to be told.

The second issue that troubled you was a perceived inference that Dr. Dao had a mental illness. You were concerned that this reinforced negative stereotyping of people with mental illnesses. You pointed out that Ms. Mercier first referred to his convictions and suspension of his medical licence and then went on to say: “Whatever his history though, we really haven’t seen anything come out that would shed any light on his mental state on Sunday or anything to do with this particular incident.” You thought this would lead to an inference of instability:

Should viewers conclude from Ms. Mercier’s comments that Dr. Dao’s previous infractions were a sign of mental instability or lack of ethics, which might explain his rather noisy resistance to being (literally…) pulled off a plane (he’d already been given permission to board) to make room for airline crew?

You felt this made it seem that the incident was influenced by Dr. Dao’s mental stability, and the reporting should have focused exclusively on the airline’s decision to have a passenger forcibly removed.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer for CBC News Network in Vancouver, Daniel Getz, replied to your concerns. He said the questions you asked about the relevance and ethics of reporting on Dr. Dao’s background were important ones, but he did not agree with your conclusions. He told you that information about Dr. Dao had been published all day. The editorial team concluded that they would be remiss if they had not included some reference to his legal and professional problems. To neglect to do so, he added, would make the coverage “oddly incomplete.” He said the way Mr. Hanomansing raised and framed these facts indicated the intent to note the facts that had emerged that day:

IAN HANOMANSING

And under the harsh glare of publicity, not just United and its C.E.O. but also the passenger who was dragged out of the plane.

He pointed out that Ms. Mercier was clear that Dr. Dao’s past difficulties had no bearing on the incident on the United Airlines flight. She was not implying or inferring anything about Dr. Dao’s mental health or stigmatizing those with mental illnesses. He explained her intent was to refer to his state of mind at the time of the incident.

In using the phrase “mental state”, Ms. Mercier was referring to Dr. Dao’s state of mind at the time of the incident, not his state of mental health as you suggest. The passenger’s state of mind was relevant to the story and, in particular, directly connected editorially to the claims of United’s C.E.O. who had suggested, as Ms. Mercier reported, that the passenger was behaving in a belligerent, disruptive and defiant manner. A key line of inquiry in the story has focused on the conduct of Dr. Dao leading up to the incident caught on video and whether it in any way explained the response of security officials.

REVIEW

As Mr. Getz stated, the issues you raised are important ones. They are difficult because policy provides guidance but each situation is a judgment call. How the material is reported and the context also has some bearing. CBC Journalistic policy calls for caution in using labels which might stereotype individuals. There is also the Privacy Policy:

We exercise our right of access to information and our freedom of expression within the context of individual rights. One of these is the right to privacy.

In situations involving personal suffering and pain, we balance the public’s right to know against individual human dignity.

We disclose information of a private nature only when the subject matter is of public interest.

Without limiting the meaning of public interest, we work in the public interest when we reveal information that helps our audience make decisions about matters of public debate and when we expose illegal activity, anti-social behavior, corruption, abuse of trust, negligence and incompetence, or a situation that poses a risk to the health and safety of others.

The discussion between the reporter and Mr. Hanomansing was an overview of the day’s developments in this ongoing story. Mr. Hanomansing began by referring to public outrage and the impact it was having on United Airlines stock, followed by broadcast of the video of the incident. Mr. Hanomansing then set up the subsequent discussion with Ms. Mercier:

Today, a day after United’s CEO wrote a letter to employees defending them and placing much of the blame on that passenger, he's now come out with a full apology and is vowing to do better. This evening Stephanie Mercier is on the story.

Ms. Mercier then provided a recap of the series of responses and statements from the President and CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, as the company tried to manage what had turned into a public relations nightmare, including calls for his resignation. It is at that point that Mr. Hanomansing asked her about what had been learned regarding the passenger:

IAN HANOMANSING

And under the harsh glare of publicity, not just United and its C.E.O. but also the passenger who was dragged out of the plane.

STEPHANIE MERCIER

We’re learning more details about this passenger today. And his name is David Dao. He’s Vietnamese-American. He’s a pulmonary disease doctor in Kentucky. Media reports have been bringing up his somewhat sordid past. They say that more than a decade ago he was convicted of a handful of counts to do with drugs and fraud. And he ended up surrendering his medical licence. But he did get that licence back in 2015 although there were some restrictions put on it. Now whatever his history, though, we really haven’t seen anything come out that would have shed any light on his mental state on Sunday or anything to do with this particular incident. His lawyer released a statement today saying that he is still in a hospital in Chicago. He’s recovering and his family is asking for privacy.

I agree it is wrong to speculate about a person’s mental health. As you pointed out, it can stigmatize and reinforce unfounded stereotyping of people with mental illnesses being violent. In this case, taken in context, Ms. Mercier was referring to Dr. Dao’s state of mind at the time of the incident, not in the broader context of his mental health. Ms. Mercier provided the caveat herself when she added that “whatever his history”, there is nothing that sheds light on what occurred on that aircraft.

The issue of revealing any details about Dr. Dao’s past is a lot less clear cut. The fact that he was a physician was germane, as he said he had to return home so that he could keep appointments with his patients. Journalists have a duty and a strong instinct to tell what they know so that people receiving the information can form their own conclusions about who is in the news, and what has happened. Ms. Mercier gave very few details - only that there had been some legal and medical problems. In a wrap-up of what was known about the case and the man at the centre of it, it was restrained. It is rarely a defense to report something because others have. However, pulling together known facts in a fairly low-key manner is editorially justifiable. It is logical and reasonable that reporters would want to find out more about the person at the centre of this controversy. Once they did so, they discovered a troubled past related to his medical practice. For better or ill, Dr. Dao’s privacy was compromised the moment the incident occurred and the video went viral. This is not to blame the victim, but to reflect on the fact that while reporters are told to minimize harm they also have a strong obligation to report what they know. In this case, Ms. Mercier did not provide details but gave the bare minimum of the facts that were on public record at that point in time - that is a defensible editorial choice. Your analysis is an important reminder, though, that there should be a high threshold for delving into the details of individuals who inadvertently end up in the news.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman