The Outing Of Dr. Dao: A Media oxymoron?

Among the best-known bits of the late, great comedian George Carlin were his riffs on oxymorons – two words that perhaps don’t belong together. Among his favorites: military intelligence, genuine imitation, government organization, Microsoft Works and airline food.

Speaking of airlines, we might want to add “passenger rights” to the list following United Airlines’ recent public-relations debacle that provided great material for late-night comics and creators of Facebook memes and video mashups.

My personal favorite came from Jimmy Kimmel, which is linked here.

Kidding aside, I’m troubled by one aspect of this crazy story. As a newspaper editor, I used to start some talks with this joke: “An editor is someone who strolls onto the battlefield after the fighting stops and shoots the wounded.” That would get some laughs. Then I’d add, “I’m here to explain that, believe it or not, ‘media ethics’ isn’t an oxymoron.”

Media accounts of the United Airlines incident involving Kentucky physician David Dao test that proposition. Several media outlets quickly reported a matter of public record: That the Commonwealth of Kentucky had suspended Dao’s medical license over his prescribing practices.

However, this tidbit appears to have zero to do with what happened on the airplane. That didn’t stop such stories from gaining rapid traction. TMZ.com piled on with a report about Dao’s subsequent success as a pro poker player. A quick Google search will show just how low some outlets stooped.

Years ago, before the Internet and social media, my first reaction as an out-of-the-area editor would have been to give the guy a break in terms of getting into his past. He didn’t choose to be in that situation.

The decision, then and now, is harder for hometown media. The editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal correctly pointed out that some of their readers would wonder if that’s the same Dr. Dao who had been in the news. Dr. Dao became what I used to call an “involuntary public figure.” I’m sure some of you will disagree, but if we really believe in democracy and freedom of the press, sometimes life isn’t going to be fair. Things can happen that put you in the news, and it’s out of your control.

Once again, the Internet changes whatever it touches. I recently was at a presentation in Columbus, Ohio, in which Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist with deep roots in Silicon Valley and information technology, was asked about Internet privacy and how people can preserve it. If he were from New Jersey, the paraphrase of Kvamme’s answer would be “fuhgettaboutit.” He added this: “You already gave it up for convenience.”

It’s true. We’ve willingly ceded privacy so Amazon, Google, Facebook and others can provide the value we perceive. We love being able to search for information 7-24 unless, of course, it is information we would prefer that someone else can’t seek. So, once Dao became a major figure in the news, the result was inevitable. Whether his moment in the limelight was serendipity, purposeful or a combination of both mattered not.

That’s no license to overdo it. Ethical journalists shouldn’t simply follow the crowd, go for cheap clicks or detail someone’s background as breathless “breaking news” in these circumstances. Otherwise, “ethical journalist” is indeed an oxymoron.

What would I do? I would report this without going into detail, mindful of tone and context. My newspaper and my website wouldn’t make a big deal out of Dr. Dao’s past unless someone shows it has a direct relationship to the United incident. It’s simply one aspect of a significant newsmaker’s life story. I say “significant” because this one incident already has pounded the market value of a huge corporation and, who knows, may cost the CEO his job. Let others get the cheap clicks.

For Dr. Dao, that still doesn’t make it fair.

For those who want to get into the weeds about the oxymoron-like challenge of “media ethics” that this story presented, I recommend this analysis from the Poynter Institute of Media Studies

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