Journalists and social scientists have a lot in common in their professional activities. Both try to gather information and figure out what is happening in society, and then communicate their findings to a wider community. But the playing rules are different.
Is your name going to be published? If you are an informant in a research, the researchers will probably make considerable effort to convince you that the interview is confidential and that your name will not figure in the research report. Your name will be concealed in all further phases of the research, and a lot of attention is paid to eliminating any chance of giving a hint of your identity. The researchers might even invent a pseudonym for you in the research report or change the name of your municipality of residence.
But if it is a journalist that interviews you, they will do everything to be able to publish your name in the story. This goal is so self-evident that they might not even remember to explain it to you. A recent example might illustrate the importance of this principle. When a journalist used a fictitious first name as pseudonym instead of the interviewee’s real name in a story of an incident (somebody had thrown fresh eggs at the windscreen of a citizen as she was driving under a bridge, and she reported about this first in her Facebook feed), the name change was criticized as an ethical problem in the Journalists’ union paper. Using pseudonyms makes it more difficult for the audience to make a distinction between news stories and fictional stories.
No cruelty under the guise of science
Social scientists are trained to pay a lot of attention to informant’s right to understand what it means to participate in a study and to freely decide whether they want to do it or not. If an informant accepts a social scientist’s request for an interview, they usually are asked to sign an informed consent form where they confirm that they have been told about the research project and about their rights.
The strong commitment of scientists to ensure informed consent goes far back in history. During the Second World War, the Nazis committed atrocities in concentration camps in the name of science, mostly medicine. After the war, scientists decided to establish a code known as the Nuremberg Code, which told scientists to always ask for voluntary consent from research subjects. The World Medical Association published in 1964 the Declaration of Helsinki, which highlighted individuals’ right to make informed decisions, irrespective of the benefits to wider society. Today’s routines, also in other fields of research than medicine, echo this historical legacy.
Building trust with readers
Anonymity, in the sense of not publishing or otherwise revealing interviewees’ names to the public, is a rule for social scientists but an exception for journalists. There are several reasons for this difference. Facticity is a classical news value. Getting the facts right is fundamental for professional journalism. It would be inconceivable to deliberately change the name of the interviewee’s home municipality or to write in the story dateline ”A small town in Western Finland”. Detailed facts are indispensable in gaining the audience’s trust in news stories.
Facts, such as names of the interviewees, are crucial elements in the process where media builds authority in the eyes of the public. Scientists, including social scientists, have other means for constructing authority. They build trust with the apparatus of scientific methods, gate-keeping institutions and academic reporting – the repertoire of academic authority.
The public has a right to know
The journalism mindset prioritizes the public’s right to know what is going on in society, as well as journalists’ responsibility to make this happen. The first guideline for journalists by the Finnish Council for Mass Media says: ”A journalist is primarily responsible to the readers, listeners and viewers, who have the right to know what is happening in society.” (JSN 2020.) The well-being of interviewees is not the first priority.
When it comes to social sciences, ”do no harm” is a fundamental tenet of the ethics. But social scientists are also asked to balance the rights of the individual participant against the potential benefit of the research to wider society.
Anonymity requires ethical justification
In some situations, a journalist promises to keep the interview confidential. In these cases, the journalist and the source agree on the terms of confidentiality. Anonymity can be granted to interviewees in order to protect them from negative consequences if they reveal, for example, intimate personal information. It is up to the journalist to explain the possible consequences of the story to the interviewee. There are no ready-made texts (such as informed consent forms) for that purpose. The journalist and the interviewee can negotiate the conditions of confidentiality.
In case of leaks, reluctance to use anonymous sources is weighed against the societal relevance of the information to be published. However, anonymity can also be granted to sources just because they would otherwise refuse to give information or an interview to the journalist. In some cases, this decision serves the journalist’s career or the source’s hidden motives, but not the public’s right to know. In such circumstances, anonymity is not ethically justified.
Consider well what you say to a journalist!
There are also other differences between the practices of journalism and scientific research related to interviews. For instance, journalists consider it reprehensible to pay for interviews, even if this happens especially in celebrity journalism that does not follow all the ethical guidelines., Researchers on the other hand may judge that it is fair to compensate participants somehow for the painstaking effort of participating in a research.
Finally, in their informed consent form, researchers typically say that the interviewee can withdraw their consent after the interview until a certain, specified point. Journalists, on the contrary, are supposed to accept such a request only in very special circumstances. The Council of Mass Media says in its guidelines: ”The interviewee’s refusal to allow the publishing of his/her statement must be complied with only if the circumstances following the interview have changed so significantly that the publication of the interview could be viewed as unjust.” (JSN 2020.) So consider carefully what you say to a journalist!
Kaarina Järventaus is Senior lecturer. She teaches journalism and research and development methods.
- Berg, B. L. & Lune, H. 2012. Qualitative Research Methods for Social Sciences. Eighth edition. Boston: Pearson.
- JSN 2020. Julkisen sanan neuvosto (Council for Mass Media). Guidelines for journalists and an annex.
- Kaiser, K. 2012. Protecting confidentiality. In Gubrium, J. F., Holstein, J. A., Marvasti, A. B., & McKinney, K. D. (Eds.). The SAGE handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
- Smyth, M. & Williamson, E. 2004. Introduction. In Smyth, M. & Williamson, E. (eds). Researchers and their ´subjects´. Bristol: The Polity Press, 1-16.
- Vehkoo, J. 2020. Kuljettaja kertoi munapommituksesta. Yksi toimitus käytti kuljettajasta keksittyä nimeä, toinen oikeaa. Lepsuuntuvatko nimettömyyskäytännöt? Journalisti 1/2020, 26-27.