United Airlines, WJLA, Louisville’s Courier-Journal and Inappropriate Angles

All sides sounds neutral until it's not

United Airlines’ decision to solve its overbooked flight problem by dragging an older customer out of its airplane in full view of his horrified fellow passengers carried lessons. Aside from the basic lesson about treating humans decently and avoiding having law enforcement bloody a man in the process of removing him from a flight in order to resolve a problem that was the airline’s own doing in the first place, there were PR lessons about how to properly respond when your organization screws up on a grand scale and media lessons about news judgment and all sides to a story not being equal.

The decision, for example, to bring up Dr. David Dao’s past, as Louisville’s Courier-Journal had done in an article today, was condemned by a lot of journalists as irrelevant to what had been done to Dao.

And when WJLA investigative reporter Lisa Fletcher took to social media, the very medium which had served to concentrate the collective rage against United Airlines’ actions, to tweet about her own upcoming report on Dr. Dao’s “troubled past,” as she put it in the tweet, it did not go over well.

What made the since-deleted tweet particularly noticeable and prone to ridicule was the accompanying photo of a desk covered with documents, something that reminded us of President Trump’s use of papers as props, as in the stack of folders piled on a table during a press conference in which he said he was transferring his business to his sons, with the folders supposedly representing related paperwork. Whatever it was meant to be, Fletcher’s tweet became fodder for other journalists who tweeted out photos of their own desks, topped with some sharp criticism.

After receiving a lot of negative feedback, Fletcher responded on Twitter with a trio of tweets.

We are sorry to hear that Fletcher received threats, which are clearly a wholly inappropriate response. But to go back to Fletcher’s justification of “giving all angles of the story,” it illustrates the problem with the blanket application of a principle. Pursuing multiple sides is a good idea in the general sense, something that can demonstrate a reporter’s fairness and due diligence. But sides are also boundless. The choice of which sides to pursue, and which not to, reflects a reporter’s and an outlet’s opinion of what is relevant and important to a story, and that is where the sheen of impartiality falls away. If the question is why was it important for Fletcher/WJLA to report on Dr. Dao’s past? The pursuit of all angles is not a sufficient answer.