What Journalists Can Learn From: Psychologists

By on January 12, 2012


Sigmund Freud and brown leather couches aside, there are a lot of similarities between psychology and journalism worth note, particularly relating to questions of ethics.

1. A thorough code of ethics is worth its weight in gold

The code of ethics for psychologists is fairly intimidating at first glance. It’s a 15-page living document, complete with a preamble and a distillation of the basic principles into five main ideas. The core ideas aren’t completely different from journalism — striving to reduce harm to subjects (though journalists work to serve the public, not necessarily those that are the focus of the report), and placing a high value on integrity are common in both fields. However, journalistic codes of conduct vary widely. The Society of Professional Journalists published a code of ethics with five key points, but doesn’t go into detail about how these ethics are employed in a given situation. Let’s look at the idea of “Independence:”

Act Independently
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Journalists should:

• Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
• Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
• Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
• Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
• Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
• Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
• Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

However, the New York Times has a massive accounting of conflicts of interest, dividing the guide into “On The Job” and “On Our Own Time” sections, and creating specialized guides for journalists working in sports, entertainment and travel.

Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement & Social Media at Digital First Media, wrote last year that the journalist’s code of ethics needs an update since many of these codes were constructed before the existence of social media. He notes:

I don’t like long ethics policies for newsrooms. Too many of them exist mostly to document reasons to fire people. Too many of them are mostly lists of do’s and don’ts (usually more don’ts), rather than helpful guides to making ethical decisions in situations that aren’t as simple as the policies sometimes make them.

He goes on to detail changes he would make to the SPJ ethics code. But journalism could take a page from the APA’s specificity on what constitutes issues like informed consent. The APA explains:

10.01 Informed Consent to Therapy

(a) When obtaining informed consent to therapy as required in Standard 3.10, Informed Consent, psychologists inform clients/patients as early as is feasible in the therapeutic relationship about the nature and anticipated course of therapy, fees, involvement of third parties, and limits of confidentiality and provide sufficient opportunity for the client/patient to ask questions and receive answers. (See also Standards 4.02, Discussing the Limits of Confidentiality, and 6.04, Fees and Financial Arrangements.)

(b) When obtaining informed consent for treatment for which generally recognized techniques and procedures have not been established, psychologists inform their clients/patients of the developing nature of the treatment, the potential risks involved, alternative treatments that may be available, and the voluntary nature of their participation. (See also Standards 2.01e, Boundaries of Competence, and 3.10, Informed Consent.)

(c) When the therapist is a trainee and the legal responsibility for the treatment provided resides with the supervisor, the client/patient, as part of the informed consent procedure, is informed that the therapist is in training and is being supervised and is given the name of the supervisor.

So the APA clearly outlines what is considered acceptable and how one goes about ensuring the patient understands everything involved with a course of therapy. Contrast this with SPJ’s call for “sensitivity” when dealing with people who could be adversely affected by news coverage. Sensitivity and compassion are very vague terms that mean different things to different people. Instead, it would be ideal if journalists had a short discussion with their more naive subjects about what they are disclosing, where that information will appear and how they may be impacted once they reveal this information.

2. Invest in your craft

To become certified in psychology requires a long trek through the educational system, particularly a post-graduate investment. PhDs are often the base level required. Psychologists will spend the rest of their careers exploring their fields and gaining new certifications along the way. Emerging fields also factor heavily into psychology; for example, the Department of Homeland Security became one of the huge growth segments for psychologists when it began investing heavily in understanding the “why” behind terrorist activity. Journalists can benefit from this kind of long-term investment, particularly as our world is becoming more and more interested in understanding complicated dynamics (like, say, how our financial system collapsed). Young journalists in particular should consider a second speciality area like economics, technology, or even entertainment law.

3. Tweaking the code of ethics can lead to a downward spiral

Psychology Today is a top-selling magazine, with more than 3 million readers per month. But, pointing to its emphasis on cultural zeitgeists over clinical trials, most science writers warn readers to take Psychology Today’s articles with a healthy grain of salt. Unfortunately, the average reader does not have access to peer-reviewed journals that present scientific information geared to specialized audience, so Psychology Today steps in to fill the void. But here is where the problems start.

Mediabistro’s “How to Pitch” feature provides some insight:

“People who haven’t looked at the magazine lately might think we’re a trade rag, but we’re not,” says Psychology Today’s editor-in-chief, Kaja Perina. Readers’ confusion may be justified: Since its 1967 debut, the magazine has veered from an initial general-interest focus to a brief stint as the house organ of the American Psychological Association, and back to a consumer magazine focused on psychological issues that are relevant and useful to everyone. Ever read a relationships article in Cosmo or Glamour that didn’t quote a shrink or two? Of course not, and you can thank PT for that. When the magazine first appeared in 1967, “the market for psychologically-oriented health and relationship stories was less glutted,” says Perina. With its mainstream appeal, PT quickly became a “household staple,” Perina says, reaching nearly a million subscribers and impacting how other titles cover issues with a psychology angle. The magazine’s popularity dwindled in the ’80s, after its purchase by the American Psychological Association led to an increased focus on clinical research.

In 1992, owner Jo Colman took over, hoping to increase the magazine’s accessibility. PT had what Perina called a “split identity” during the 1990s, running celebrity covers (featuring Christy Turlington, for example, and the Dalai Lama) and attention-grabbing headlines, while also working closely with APA brass and filling a good part of the book with dry, psychologist-penned stories. With Perina at the helm, however, PT redoubled its efforts to court lay readers with a renewed emphasis on fresh, accessible writing.

While Psychology Today seems like a strange example to use to talk about news, it shows how easily a mission or a publication can try to shift with the times and morph into something completely different. We have seen the tabloidification of news and the eroding of boundaries between news content and entertainment content — in an era where outlets are competing for clicks, what’s to stop many outlets from heading in that direction?