Ethics Rounds

We can fruitfully view our ethics from a developmental perspective. As our field grows and evolves, we confront new ethical dilemmas and challenges that then become part of revising the Ethics Code, now in its 10th edition since it was first published in the early 1950s. A history of our Ethics Code will show how that as specific areas of the field emerge and develop over time, such as industrial and organizational psychology, the ethical aspects of this work crystallize and are incorporated into the code.

One would be hard-pressed to find an area of psychology growing more quickly than media psychology, which has experienced a veritable explosion in interest among APA members over the past two decades. With this increased level of interest, which goes in both directions--the public's appetite for psychology seems insatiable--come both opportunities and ethical challenges. Calls to the APA Ethics Office have reflected some of the dilemmas that psychologists interacting with the media have encountered. These challenges range from the relatively straightforward, as when a psychologist is asked to write a newspaper column regarding a specific disorder or local mental health-related event, to the more complex as when a psychologist consults on location to a reality TV program. Below are four questions, culled from calls to the Ethics Office, that may be helpful to you in thinking through the ethical aspects of a media request.

What is my role and the nature of my relationship with the individuals and groups involved?

A request to write a column or appear on a radio or television program may place a psychologist in the role of an expert informing the public. Such a request may provide an excellent opportunity to educate and can reflect favorably on psychology and the individual psychologist. Generally the request comes from a specific source and there is relatively little complexity in assessing one's ethical obligations, which will consist primarily of performing in a competent fashion and of taking care not to leave the impression that a psychologist-patient relationship is created.

Different contexts may call for more complex ethical analyses. As examples, after 9/11, numerous psychologists received requests to be filmed conducting therapy with clients who had been affected by the terrorist attacks. More recently, reality TV programs have approached psychologists and raised the possibility of showing actual therapy sessions in progress; an HBO program, "In Treatment," which features actors in both therapist and patient roles, shows the high level of public interest in psychotherapy. Other reality-based programs have asked psychologists to assess or consult with potential or current contestants.

In each of these cases, the multiple individuals and entities involved may be under the impression that they are the psychologist's primary client and hence owed the psychologist's primary ethical obligations. It is important for psychologists in these instances to think through how the different ethical obligations are weighed and balanced against one another, especially when there is reasonable likelihood that competing obligations may conflict. It is likewise important that psychologists engage in a process of informed consent and clarify how conflicts will be resolved and whose information will be kept confidential.

What degree of control will I have over the final product?

There is a wide range in the degree of control that psychologists exercise over what is ultimately published or placed on air. Psychologists who write columns that are published in a newspaper or read on the radio, for example, may have a high degree of control, subject only to an editor. In other instances, psychologists may have very little control over what the public ultimately views. It is valuable for psychologists who interact with the media to locate themselves on this continuum. Psychologists should be aware of the possibility that they are under the impression of having greater control than they actually do. A friendly TV producer, for example, may consult extensively with the psychologist at the initial stages of a project but be nowhere to be found once the taping is complete and the editing has begun.

The less control that a psychologist has, the more caution is in order. Research into what other projects a producer has done can help assess how responsibly the producer is likely to handle sensitive material. Establishing relationships with a producer over time can increase the level of trust and confidence. At the first encounter with a producer or program, be mindful that the influence you exert over the final product may be exceedingly limited. How you and your work are represented may therefore be in the hands of someone whom you know very little. Remember that the manner in which you are represented will reflect not only on you as an individual, but also on the profession as a whole.

How do the interests of the individuals and groups involved with the project align?

Principle A in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002) is Beneficence and Nonmaleficence: Do good and do no harm. Do not assume that those in the media with whom you work share this ethical principle and be aware of possible areas of tension between your goals and other participants' goals for the project.

For example, there can be a certain tedium to a psychotherapy, as we slowly and carefully explore an individual's psychological challenges and dynamics. TV programming may gravitate toward the fast-paced and even sensational, thus distorting the nature of the work and casting participants in the programming in a light that neither feels good nor accurately portrays a therapeutic relationship. In the reality TV context, psychologists may be used in a very particular way, namely, to help demonstrate that a producer has exercised due diligence in the participant selection and rejection process.

As you consider whether to engage in a media project, think through how success in the project will be defined by the various individuals and entities involved and explore how you fit into these definitions. Pay particular attention to how vulnerable individuals with whom you interact fit into this analysis. Put simply, ask yourself, "Who may get hurt if this project goes badly, and in whose interest does it lie to make sure that doesn't happen?"

What am I able to say based upon the limits of the available data?

Psychologists are frequently asked to comment on individuals and events that have garnered the public's attention. Ethical Standard 9.01, Bases for Assessments, makes clear that psychologists offer opinions "on information and techniques sufficient to substantiate their findings" and that "psychologists provide opinions of the psychological characteristics of individuals only after they have conducted an examination of the individuals adequate to support their statements or conclusions." Standard 9.01 cautions psychologists to remain within the bounds of their data. This cautionary note can be invaluable when an interviewer is pressing a psychologist to make definitive statements regarding a particular individual in the public eye whom the psychologist has neither interviewed nor met. Statements such as, "I can speak only from information that has been published in the media," or "What we know generally about such situations is that ..." can be helpful in ensuring that our interactions with the media are consistent with the Ethics Code.

The media offer many wonderful opportunities to educate the public about all that psychology has to offer. Along with these opportunities, working with the media presents ethical challenges that psychologists do well to consider before embarking on a media project. The lure of a camera or a microphone can be seductive and sometimes clouds a psychologist's better judgment about where ethical pitfalls may lie. APA's Public Communications and Ethics offices are always available to consult with psychologists about their questions and concerns, and happy to offer ourselves as a resource in helping you enter this expanding domain in a competent and ethical manner.