It was hard to elbow that amateur video footage of a Louisville doctor being dragged off the United Airlines flight out of the media spotlight. Yet, by “no angel-ling” the doctor and publishing details of his life, the professional media managed to put themselves at the centre of the story.

We could pass this over as just another oddity from the very odd Trump-era America if it weren’t that “no angel-ling” is as much a contested characteristic of Australian media as it is of the US. And perhaps worse, in Australia, it’s been weaponised into political debate and contributed to the overt political alignment of individual media outlets.

No angel” was a phrase used in a profile The New York Times wrote about Michael Brown, the 18-year-old from Ferguson, Missouri, shot by police in August 2014, turbo-charging the Black Lives Matter movement.

To say the story generated a storm would be an understatement. As then public editor Margaret O’Sullivan admitted, it suggested that Brown was “altogether a bad kid”. Some, she said, concluded that the NYT was suggesting the repellent idea that he deserved to die. 

In social media, “no angel” became the tag for the media practice of digging into the past of otherwise private individuals to construct a potentially critical profile.

Despite the self-reflection over the Times story (O’Sullivan acknowledged both the phrase and the timing on the day of Brown’s funeral as wrong), the reporting of the United Airlines passenger demonstrated that the media still has some way to go.

Columbia Journalism Review’s David Uberti characterised it as “a familiar shade-the-victim reflex that many publications have been unable or unwilling to shake despite numerous instances of pushback in recent years”. 

The trouble is many find the entire practice “repellent” and take to social media to let us know. Most journalists, not so much. Journalists see it as providing a nuanced picture of our individual complexity. The now notorious NYT phrase itself attempted to capture this sense convey this nuance in allusion to Beyonce’s 2013 release No Angel.

It’s not a judgement, we say. It’s reporting.

And in the case of the Kentucky doctor in question, his home town paper had an argument. As Louisville Courier-Journal Executive Editor Joel Christopher told CJR’s Uberti: “Dr Dao is somebody who is not unfamiliar to people in our coverage area. His original case was pretty high profile … To not acknowledge that history and context would be unusual, frankly.” (Uberti remained unconvinced.)

It was the headline that got the paper into trouble: “Passenger removed from United flight has troubled past.” It was a cliche that deserved to become its own meme. Days later, when a scorpion was found on a different United flight, Twitter asked about its “troubled past” and on Good Friday, pictures of Jesus circulated commenting on his “troubled past”.

The media trope appeared during Australia’s 2016 election campaign, when we discovered that minimum wage earning Duncan Storrar had a “troubled life” after he questioned Kelly O’Dwyer on the ABC’s Q&A about the Coalition government’s tax priorities . The Herald Sun splashed him with “ABC Hero a Villain”, reporting his past criminal convictions and family disputes.

Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston justified it to the ABC’s Jon Faine: “If you put yourself on the public stage, and in, particularly in the middle of an election campaign, questioning government policy, questioning this, I think that you’re entitled to be subjected to a bit of scrutiny.”

Other’s jumped to Storrar’s defence, including with a GoFundMe campaign. Where you lined up often said more about your politics than anything else.

In January, the Australian Press Council agreed with the Herald Sun, saying: “… to the extent the article did intrude on the man’s reasonable expectations of privacy or contribute to substantial offence, distress, prejudice, or risk to health or safety, it was justified in the public interest to report his background especially given the GoFundMe campaign”. 

Following the ABC’s shocking expose of the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Detention Centre, the hooded, physically restrained youth at the centre of the program received the no angel treatment with the widespread reporting on his juvenile criminal background.

This year, we saw it again when the federal government leaked confidential payment and communication details about individuals caught up in the Centrelink robo-debt fiasco.

Each of these reports have been defended as fair reporting in the public interest in accordance with generally accepted journalist principles. That’s the work of journalists: to dig stuff out and tell people about it. And perhaps that’s the nub of the problem.

Neither the Press Council principles, nor the MEAA Code of Ethics address the issue that lies at the heart of “no angel-ling”– relative power and proportionality. Journalists look at stories like these and see fair reporting in the public interest, stories that give nuance and depth. Non-journalists see us shaming the weak and the vulnerable.

Peter Fray

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