This week I've been pondering the issues raised when the ethics of journalism clash with the ethics of academia.
To put that into context, let me put my academic hat on and present a research project to you. It goes by the snappy title of 'Understanding the attitudes of sanctioned landlords' towards disabled tenants"
Whilst doing some research with disabled tenants at a housing association, researchers have spotted an interesting in pattern in the experiences of tenants with disabilities. Landlords who have faced sanctions, these could mbe as a result of environmental health or health and safety breaches, are reported to have a more negative attitude towards tenants with a disability. To test this, the researchers have identified a number of landlords who have been sanctioned and have disabled tenants to ask questions about their attitudes. The aim is to understand the attitudes and see what impact that has on the way tenants might be treated and inform the development of housing policy to ensure tenants are not exploited or discriminated against.
To do any kind of research, they have to get clearance from the Research Ethics Committee (REC) at the university. To make sure the research was ethical, the researchers were asked to present a research protocol which included an information sheet for the landlords explaining the research; steps to ensure anonymity of the landlords; a list of questions to be asked; and instructions on how a participant might withdraw.^ With that in place, the researchers can start to interview landlords.
Now, hang on while I swap my hat to a fetching trilby with a press ticket in it and let's look at that situation another way.
You are a journalist covering a story at a housing association and some tenants tell you stories about the way a landlord known to have been sanctioned over their properties, treat his tenants. You take the story back to your editor. You tell them that they are still letting out poor quality housing, something that is in the news at the moment, and you agree it's worth pursuing. Readers would be outraged to know a landlord is able to carry on mistreating tenets unchecked, especially when they have a disability. After a few days of phone calls and knocking on doors talking to his tenants, you realise there is something wrong. You take advice from the editor and you consult the legal department,. Then you grab a photographer and head off to confront the landlord on the doorstep and ask him why the tenants are being badly treated. As a result the landlord is later fined a substantial amount and the council agree to tighten up vetting policies.^^
So what does that have to do with my pondering ethics? Here's a third scenario. A student on a journalism course comes to me, their journalism tutor, with the landlord story outlined above. What do I do? Do I leave my academic hat on and take the research route or do I put my press hat on and treat it like a piece of journalism?
The key difference in these scenarios rests not just in the obvious - the who and how of getting to the bottom of the story. There's also an ethical position and a process at work here designed to check things are done properly. The researcher, and the ethics committee's demands are based on a starting point of minimising the harm on the participants of research - in this case the landlord. It means that we have a level of 'informed consent' that allows us to have confidence in the results of the research.
For the journalist, the ethical starting point is minimising the harm that might be caused to the wider community. The landlord might be upset at being confronted, they may feel their reputation has been tarnished by our coverage. But in discussion with our editorial staff and weighing up the consequences (we could end up in court for defamation), we consider that it's an acceptable harm if it means all his tenants get better housing.
Strictly speaking, as its part of university work it should come under the same scrutiny as any other 'research' project. This is especially the case as it contains what research committee's term 'human participants'. It means that anything were people are involved comes under extra scrutiny.
By the letter of the process I'm required to advise the student that to get permission to do the story, they will have to ensure that the landlords know why they are asking questions, give them a promise of anonymity and allow them to leave the process at anytime. Oh, and they have to prove all of that is happening in writing and wait a few weeks to hear back.
I can already hear the collective banging of heads from the journalists reading this. 'It's no good producing graduates who can fill in ethics proposals', says industry. 'I need people that will get me stories'. But if I decide to treat the story as I would in a professional newsroom, working through the consequences and deciding to let the student cover the story, I don't just wilfully ignore the rules and guidance of the university. I also miss a chance to get students really thinking about ethics.
Yes, we test and assess the students understanding of one code over another. We have our fair share of law that governs what we do to test them on too. But understanding of the codes and law isn't the thing that gets journalism a bad rep. When it comes to ethics, it's individual journalists and any opportunity to take a step back and get them to think about why they do what they do has got to be good. I might also miss the chance to get a more experienced take on the long term impact of this kind of issue from researchers embedded in these communities. It may be a chance to reflect on the hit and run of journalism that ideas like solutions journalism seeks to address.
I'm in ethical limbo.
Except I'm not because now I'm being told that I have to comply with university ethical guidelines.
What do I do?
^There are also data management/GDPR and legal concerns too.
^^The result might be something like "Controversial landlord fined £25k for leaving disabled tenant without hot water"