Tag Archives: Society of Professional Journalists

Research ethics, journalism, and paid participation

I am new to academia’s conventions on research involving human subjects—so new, in fact, that I’m just now completing my basic certification. The standards are not without resonance for me, however, given the emphasis placed by journalism educators on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Principles of “beneficience” seem to run parallel to the journalists’ narrower exhortation to “seek truth and report it.” SPJ’s “minimize harm” section is similar in many ways to the Belmont Report‘s “respect for persons” and “justice.”

One short passage from the training I’m undergoing, however, would seem to raise serious questions about some of the research advertised on and near many campuses. Describing the “voluntariness” element of informed consent, my training states:

“Compensation and ‘inducements’ (financial, material, or otherwise) should not be so compelling that they play a major factor in a prospective subject’s decision about participation.”

I am certainly not the first person to notice that many people participate in studies only because of financial inducements. I’m thinking specifically about people I’ve talked to who said they participate in psychological studies and other medical trials exclusively for cash. I wonder what the practical consequence of language like “a major factor in a prospective subject’s decision” turns out to be. Without some inducements, subjects are unlikely to give their time, but when inducements are larger than what a prospective subject’s time would have yielded otherwise, the effect is different. Perhaps the risk of harm is sufficiently small that the problem of inducements is ethically irrelevant. (The consequences for the data may be more significant.)

A student at my level of understanding is in no position to criticize, but it’s interesting that the SPJ code has something to say about this too: “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” My instructors in journalism school and editors at most publications would go further: “Never pay sources.” I’ll be interested to learn more about how these fine lines are walked.