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ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. — It started with a video that began circulating Sunday evening of a man being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville.

In the video, security officers are seen pulling 69-year-old Elizabethtown doctor David Dao from his seat and dragging him down the aisle. Blood can be seen on his face. His shirt rides up on his stomach as he is dragged down the aisle.

The incident sparked massive outrage on social media and a boycott campaign against United in China. And by Tuesday, local, national and international media began scrutinizing Dao’s past and sending reporters to stake out his house.

As some in Elizabethtown were reacting to their neighbor and community being thrust into the spotlight, a national audience — also fueled by social media — set its sights on The Courier-Journal for a story it published about Dao’s past.

Wikimedia Commons

The Hardin County Courthouse in downtown Elizabethtown

On Tuesday morning in downtown Elizabethtown, population about 30,000, people were just learning the news that the man in the video was a local.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was horrific and terrifying, but I also knew I didn’t know the whole story and the context behind it,” said college student Sarah Thurman, who was studying outside of Vibe Coffee.

Inside the coffeeshop, local videographer Ashley Abell was packing up her things. True to the place’s small-town nature, she said she learned about the United incident through a friend-of-a-friend who saw it firsthand, as a fellow passenger on the flight.

“And he said, ‘we made it home safely, we made it through an interesting last leg of the flight,’” Abell said. “‘If you don’t know about it, just Google United, whatever flight number it was.’”

She did. And like countless others, she wants to hear from Dao.

“I think it’s gotten a lot of attention, so it’s hard not to want to know what [Dao] thinks about it,” Abell said.

That morning, cars carrying media crews — from Inside Edition and the British Daily Mail to WFPL News — were traveling down Dao’s half-mile-long driveway, across a creek to his secluded Elizabethtown home. At the office of Dao’s wife — who is also a doctor — a flustered receptionist said she was thinking about locking the door to keep reporters out.

Everyone was seeking an interview with Dao, eager to learn his thoughts about being thrust into the national spotlight in a particularly violent way.

“People saw the video and were affected by the video, and now the one person they haven’t heard from is the person in the center of this,” said Steve Bittenbender, who was sitting in his car in Dao’s driveway. Bittenbender is a Louisville-based freelance journalist who was chasing the Dao story for Reuters.

It turns out Dao wasn’t home; he’s in a hospital in Chicago, recovering from his injuries. His daughter referred all media inquiries to a Chicago law firm, which didn’t return multiple requests for comment. In a statement to WDRB News, a spokesperson for the firm said Dao is recovering in Chicago and his family would not make any statements to the media.

Story Prompts Accusations of Victim-Shaming

As the media circus arrived in Elizabethtown, a national audience was focusing its outrage on the daily newspaper in the city 45 miles north.

On Tuesday morning, The Courier-Journal — which has covered the United incident extensively — posted a story headlined, “Passenger removed from United flight has troubled past.” It solely focused on Dao’s legal trouble from more than a decade ago, when he lost his license after a conviction for drug-related offenses related to his medical practice. Dao regained his medical license in 2015.

The story prompted accusations that the newspaper was blaming the victim for his treatment. The newspaper later updated the story online, moving details about Dao’s past much lower and recasting the focus on how the incident thrust Dao into an international spotlight.

For Bittenbender, there’s nothing wrong with the inclusion of Dao’s past brushes with the law.

“It is part of the story,” Bittenbender said. “It’s just like when someone’s obit is written, you write about everything related to that person’s life. And unfortunately, this is an aspect of Dr. Dao’s life.”

The court of public opinion differed, claiming the C-J was using Dao’s past to justify what happened to him on the United flight. A public protest of the newspaper’s approach is planned for tomorrow.

The consensus among media critics wasn’t so much that it was inappropriate to mention Dao’s past, but that it was wrong to focus a story solely on the issue — which the initial version did — without appropriate context.

The Courier-Journal defended its coverage. Executive Editor Joel Christopher said the story about Dao’s past was only one of the many it had done about the incident, and it was important to view the coverage as a whole:

“In reporting on the video of the passenger being yanked from a Louisville-bound United flight, the Courier-Journal discovered it had previously covered the man who was injured in prior reporting. Tuesday’s local angle was reported as part of multiple stories and videos about the incident, and that story was taken out of context at the national level. 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.”

In a story about the media kerfuffle, the Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti said the issue raises questions about journalism in today’s media landscape:

“The breadth of the Courier-Journal’s coverage doesn’t absolve it from the fact that Dao’s criminal history is irrelevant to this bizarre episode. But Christopher does bring up an interesting wrinkle of local publishing in the digital age. When a story from an outlet’s backyard goes viral on a global scale, only a tiny fraction of audiences will be familiar with the players, plot, or stage. Should a journalist’s role be to serve their geographic community, or the global audience cocking back rotten tomatoes?”

This story has been updated to include a statement from Courier-Journal Executive Editor Joel Christopher. 

Lisa Gillespie and Stephen George contributed to this story.