Leck: Building trust isn’t a ‘nice-to-have’

United Airlines staff dragged a paying customer off a plane, sparking an international news bonanza — and a small newspaper in Louisville, Ky., had a scoop.

Louisville’s Courier-Journal reported on April 11 that the passenger, David Dao, lost his medical license in 2005 after he was convicted of drug-related offences. Soon after, they published their story on Dao’s “troubled past,” the newspaper received blowback from angry readers.

Thu-Hong Ha at Quartz called the article “oblique victim shaming.” A number of Twitter users compared it to the New York Times’ description of police shooting victim Michael Brown as “no angel” in 2014, while other readers called it “sleazy reporting” and “yellow journalism.”

It’s easy to say what the Courier-Journal did was wrong or even unethical. But now that time has passed, it’s more interesting to consider how they could have reported the story more responsibly.

From a local standpoint, the Courier-Journal did the right thing. Dao was a well-known figure in Louisville after he was convicted of illegally prescribing painkillers and accused of having a sexual relationship with a patient. The newspaper wrote their story for a local audience, who were presumably familiar with the case.

But nothing in the story communicated that to non-local readers, who were also reading about the United Airlines incident. The story mentioned only once that Dao’s history is familiar to Kentuckians and did not explain why his background was important. As a result, outsiders saw the story as an attempt to discredit Dao and protect United Airlines.

It’s natural to ask why the newspaper chose to report on Dao’s past, and responsible journalists should answer those questions. But the newspaper did little to explain itself.

It was only when other media outlets contacted the Courier-Journal that executive editor Joel Christopher commented. He told the Columbia Journalism Review that some readers didn’t see the “full scope” of their coverage, but admitted the newspaper didn’t provide enough context for an international audience to understand.

“We’ve since done that,” he wrote.

They didn’t. They toned down the language and changed the headline – dropping the words “troubled past” – but the context they provided was still inadequate. In today’s world of digital media, each article must stand on its own and tell readers why they should trust it.

An open, transparent version of the same story would have said that David Dao had previously appeared on the pages of the Courier-Journal and linked to those articles.

A transparent article would have also told readers why it was providing a local perspective. Dao may be a generic victim on CNN, but Louisville natives have known the man for years. The newspaper was uniquely positioned to tell his story, as only a publication with deep ties to a local community can. Instead, what they published felt like a hit piece.

The changes the Courier-Journal made to the story could have been done in a more transparent fashion as well. Editors focused on transparency would have marked changes to the article with an editor’s note, and may have published a standalone piece addressing reader’s concerns. Instead, they chose to make changes behind the scenes.

Finally, they lost readers’ trust on social media. The phrase “troubled past,” which appeared in the Courier-Journal’s original tweet, is euphemistic. Why not be straightforward? Tell readers that the David Dao dragged off the plane was a local doctor convicted of drug-related offences. Social media isn’t just for story links — it’s also a place to communicate directly with readers.

The reporter, Morgan Watkins, responded twice to criticism on Twitter and then went quiet. It’s easy to understand why.

But journalists committed to transparency are better off engaging with readers than ignoring them.

The Courier-Journal decided to report on Dao’s past, and they owed readers an explanation. Few people will see the full scope of coverage. If the article was part of a larger story, it was their responsibility to communicate the bigger picture.

Transparency builds trust in the media, which has been in decline. An Edelman poll released in February found that only 45 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they trusted media institutions, a 10-point drop from 2016.

Building trust isn’t a ‘nice-to-have.’ It’s the responsibility of journalists to tell readers how they make decisions and respond to their concerns. Without those steps, journalists leave readers to assume they’re being told the truth. In today’s media environment, that’s not enough anymore.

Sebastian Leck is a graduate student studying Journalism and Communications. This essay won him the Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship.