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Uneasy Bedfellows 2010

This article was published in the Australian Journalism Review in 2010.
It explains the challenges we face in working with University Ethics Committees.

Uneasy bedfellows:
ethics committees and
journalism research
By Ian Richards, AJR 31(2) 35

One of the surprises awaiting the journalist who moves from the newsroom to the campus is the discovery that any interview conducted for research purposes requires prior approval from a university ethics committee. In Australia these are known as Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs). HRECs have been a source of contention since they were established, with some of the strongest criticisms of them coming from humanities and social science researchers. Many of these criticisms have been echoed by journalism researchers. This paper considers HREC review in relation to journalism research. In doing so, it raises some of the most contentious issues occasioned by such review, discusses appropriate ways of understanding these issues, and suggests a possible way forward for HRECs and journalism researchers.

Interviews have been the lifeblood of journalism since at least the mid-19th century. Today, as Michael Schudson has written: “The interview is the fundamental act of contemporary journalism”(Schudson, 1995, p. 72). By “interview”, Schudson means both a social interaction between a person of public interest and a professional writer, and the literary form that is the product of that interaction (Schudson, 1995, p. 73). In journalism, such social interactions occur with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations and under all sorts of conditions. They take place in public and in private; in person, over the telephone and via the internet; some are formal, many informal; some are polite and some are not; some seek basic information, while others seek detailed knowledge. Most practitioners take part in hundreds, if not thousands, of such social interactions during their working lives. Yet, regardless of the range and extent of their experience, no practitioner has ever been required to obtain formal ethics approval prior to engaging in this interaction.

One of the surprises awaiting the journalist who moves from the newsroom to the campus is the discovery that any interview conducted for research purposes requires prior approval from a university ethics committee. In Australia these are known as Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs). The composition and role of these committees is laid down in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (National Statement), drawn up by the Australian Health Ethics Committee, a section of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The National Statement is the latest incarnation of four decades of formal ethics requirements in Australia, beginning with the “Statement of human experimentation and supplementary notes” (NHMRC, 1966), which was “a set of applied ethical standards about medical research involving human subjects” (Israel & Hay, 2006, p. 47). Since then, these standards have been extensively revised and extended to cover all human research conducted by institutions such as universities. Thus at the University of South Australia, for example, researchers today are advised that they must apply for ethics approval if their research project:

involves contact with human subjects (for example through interview, questionnaires,
clinical trials); the use of human tissue; access to medical records or other
records that are identifiable, contain intimate personal information, and not publicly
available; children or other vulnerable members of the population; significant
participation of Indigenous people and communities; offshore participants; embryos;
the researcher’s workplace. (University of South Australia, 2009)

Similar stipulations are in force at all Australian universities.

The origins of these requirements lie in developments since World War II in North America and Europe. The rise of research ethics has been described many times elsewhere, although, as Israel and Hay (2006) have pointed out, the process was rather more complicated than often portrayed. Common elements in accounts of this rise include universal abhorrence at the human “experiments” conducted under the guise of science and medicine in Nazi Germany; the Nuremberg Code drawn up after the Second World War; the Declaration of Helsinki (1964) relating to biomedical research; the Tuskegee syphilis study which for almost four decades denied appropriate medical treatment to several hundred African-American sharecroppers; Stanley Milgram’s experiments involving obedience to authority; the Belmont Report (1979) which set out the key ethical principles of respect for persons, beneficence and justice; and the attempt by the Council for International Organisations of Medical Sciences (1982) to apply the principles underlying the Helsinki Declaration to the world’s developing nations (for fuller discussion see Israel & Hay, 2006; Dodds, 2000).
These developments provide the background to the evolution of research
ethics in Australia, which culminated in the release in 1999 of the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans, described as “a great leap forward in the ethical regulation of research in Australia” (Dodds, 2000, p. 18). This document has since been reviewed and revised, before being released in 2007 as the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. At the centre of its guidelines are Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs), which have responsibility for ensuring that any human research conducted at or on behalf of their institution is ethically reviewed and monitored in accordance with the standards outlined in the National Statement (NHMRC, 2007a, p. 77). This paper considers HREC review in relation to journalism research. In doing so, it raises some of the most contentious issues occasioned by such review, discusses appropriate ways of understanding these issues, and suggests a possible way forward for HRECs and journalism researchers.

Human Research Ethics Committees
HRECs have been the source of a good deal of contention since they were first established. More than a decade ago Michael Crotty questioned the right and competence of ethics committees “to declare in an authoritative way on what is, or is not, ethical behaviour or to demand conformity to their norms precisely as ethical norms” (Crotty, 1996, p. 80, emphasis in original). Similar questions have been raised in other countries where research ethics committees have been established, along with concerns about “ethics creep”, meaning the process by which committees have “expanded their mandate to include a host of groups and practices that were undoubtedly not anticipated in the original research ethics formulations” (Haggerty, 2004, p. 392). Indeed, in Canada, it has been claimed that this process has extended so far that “the research ethics process now poses dangers to the ability to conduct university based research” (Haggerty, 2004, p. 392). Although similar views have been expressed in Australia, the rapidly expanding volume of research applications being presented to most HRECs around the country suggests that the ability to conduct university-based research is not under threat. Rather, it is HRECs themselves which are under challenge. For example, Susan Dodds triggered a national debate in research circles when she referred to a resources crisis enveloping Australia’s HRECs, stating that it appeared that most institutions with HRECs provide them with very modest resources and that, despite the committees’ important role in promoting ethical research and in protecting research participants, “their ability to act effectively in this role is hampered by their lack of support and their burgeoning workloads” (Dodds, 2002a, pp. 43-44). At the same time, as Dodds has also pointed out, “focussing on ethics committee approval as the sole site of ethical concern simultaneously allows many important ethical issues to be overlooked and places excessive responsibility on the ethics committee for identifying ethical issues and on researchers for protecting participants against violations of ethical principles” (Dodds, 2002b, p. 79).

Some of the strongest criticisms of HRECs have come from humanities and social science researchers. Given that the Australian system evolved with little consultation with, or input from, this section of the research community, this is hardly surprising. Issues which have aroused angst include “regulatory practices associated with informed consent, confidentiality, beneficence and various research relationships” (Israel & Hay, 2006, p. 144) and the ways in which committees have interpreted such nebulous terms as “harm” and “respect for persons”. The position of qualitative researchers appears to have improved somewhat recently because those responsible for the content of the National Statement have taken some heed of their concerns. This was most evident in the 2007 review of the National Statement, which resulted in the inclusion for the first time of a section specifically addressing qualitative research methods. For example, the National Statement now refers to interviews “where the categories of response are focused but not necessarily pre-determined” and acknowledges that they “can take many forms including structured, semi-structured, unstructured, key informant interviews, sample informant interview, life story or oral history, focus groups, observation, archival research, on-line research and action research” (NHMRC, 2007a, p. 26).

Despite the addition of this section, a widespread view persists among non-medical researchers that both the National Statement and the way it is interpreted by Australia’s HRECs continue to be dominated by “a scientific, biomedical model of objective, experimental inquiry that construes research as an unchanging, sequential process that can be set in stone in advance of the research” (Halse & Honey, 2007, p. 342 ). As Halse and Honey have argued, such an assumption is contrary to “the pragmatic ‘realities’ of qualitative research” (2007, p. 342). To demonstrate their case, they use examples from the fields of social anthropology and life history which employ qualitative methods such as ethnography and participatory action research, and recruitment procedures such as snowballing or theoretical sampling in grounded theory (Halse & Honey, 2007, p. 342). The focus of research ethics requirements on research plans is another “awkward transfer” from the medical model, because the analysis and reporting of research results is at least as likely as the conduct of the research to produce significant interventions in people’s lives (Nelson, 2004, p. 217). Ethics requirements also raise difficulties for research which does not involve premeditated intervention, and which does not have a clear start and finish. It is not unusual for researchers in the field of political science, for example, to conduct what has been described as “accidental” research, meaning such activities as phone calls to a minister’s office or “an impromptu chat over cocktails with a judge” (Langlois, quoted by Lane, 2007). In such situations, the researcher is faced with the choice of either proceeding without formal ethics approval or missing an opportunity to gather data from a key informant.

Issues in journalism
Ethics can be understood as a form of inquiry concerned with the process of finding rational justifications for our actions when the values we hold come into conflict (Plaisance, 2009, p. 5). Many of the concerns which have arisen in relation to journalism and research ethics appear to be the product of such a values conflict, and thus the relationship between journalism and research ethics itself poses an ethical dilemma. This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that it has become increasingly apparent that there are a number of journalisms operating in the world today (see, for example, Bromley, 1997) and an expanding diversity in the ways scholars conceptualise “journalism”. As Barbie Zelizer has pointed out, there is great diversity in the explanatory frames employed to explore journalistic practice and great variety in the fields of inquiry which have shaped assumptions about how journalism works (Zelizer, 2004). This helps explain why the “contemporary study of journalism has divided journalism scholars not only from each other but also from other parts of the academy” (Zelizer, 2004, p. 3). Zelizer has simplified the ways in which journalism scholarship has taken shape by dividing the literature into five broad fields – sociological inquiry; historical inquiry; language studies; political science and the cultural analysis of journalism – each of which raises methodological and ethical issues. However, as Zelizer observes, “many of us have tended to accept the social sciences, and particularly sociology, as the background for conceptualising journalism” (2004, p. 8), to the point that it was recently posited that “in many ways, social science research is an extended form of journalism” (Coleman, 2004, p. 93). It is not surprising, then, that many of the criticisms of research ethics requirements raised in the social sciences have also arisen in relation to journalism.

As indicated earlier, one of the bones of contention for journalism practitioners moving into academic research is interviewing. Obtaining ethics approval usually requires the applicant to work out questions weeks before the actual interview takes place, and to present them for formal approval and possible amendment before conducting the interview. Journalism practitioners are used to acting quickly and flexibly, pursuing issues as they emerge during an interview, and this is difficult if one is required to adhere to a pre-determined script. More to the point, such requirements run counter to standard journalistic practice, where having one’s questions vetted by others is strongly discouraged. The reasons for this derive not from journalistic arrogance or presumption, as sometimes seems to be assumed by journalism’s critics, but from journalism’s historic role in the protection and expression of free speech, and the traditional role of journalists as critics and challengers of those in authority. These roles are undermined if the ability to question is subject to external control.

A second area of contention in relation to journalism is the application of informed consent, originally developed to ensure that research participants understand just what it is they are consenting to when they agree to participate in research. This is clearly essential in fields such as medicine, where there may be genuine risks of physical or psychological harm. No one could dispute that members of the public who are invited to take part in medical experiments or drug tests should be informed about all possible risks and potential side-effects. Reports of episodes such as the recent British case in which a number of people were left seriously ill following participation in a drug trial carried out by Paraxel at a London hospital (Drugs trial men “are improving”, 2006) are widely circulated by journalists. In such cases, the question of how well informed participants were about the risks involved is often a central element in their reports. But while they might understand the role of informed consent in such situations, many journalists interpret the notion differently when it arises in their own field. There are several possible explanations for this, but the fact that people are unlikely to die or become ill as a result of participation in journalistic research is one of them. Another is that “it would be wrong to conclude that journalists ought to write only about people who have given their consent”(Bok, 1984, p. 252). Journalists frequently interview individuals in powerful positions – prime ministers, premiers, chief executives, senior bureaucrats and so on – who are generally media savvy and well positioned to agree or disagree to be interviewed without requiring the formality of a consent form. Nor is consent an issue when the information being sought is presented in public, such as at public meetings or press conferences, or in arenas where journalists have an acknowledged right to be present, such as Parliament and the courts. And it “would be difficult to argue that consent should always be obtained from those who are crooked, corrupt or criminal prior to their actions being reported in the news media” (Richards, 2009, p. 18).

The common requirement that participants should remain anonymous can also cause problems. There is an expectation in professional practice that – except in special cases – journalists will name their sources, as this lends credibility to their reports. While, in general, research participants may be given the option of being named or otherwise identified, there have been occasions when an ethics committee has insisted that participants remain anonymous throughout the duration of a project. Such insistence can “leave the journalist practicing and teaching in a university setting with suspect, unnamed sources” and, as a result, “reduce the credibility of the journalist in the eyes of his or her peers” (Dash, 2007, p. 871).

Then there is the notion of “harm”. There can be no doubt that many non-medical research projects have the potential to harm participants. Such harm can take many forms, from damage to reputation and detrimental effects on personal finances to disruption of emotional well-being. In journalism, harm can be caused in many ways, from invasion of privacy to reputational harm and offensive reportage (for fuller discussion of harm in journalism see, for example, Plaisance, 2009). However, most journalists have at some time interviewed victims of natural disasters or traumatic events such as road accidents or bushfires, and few have reported that it has harmed interviewees. This does not mean that no harm has been caused – indeed, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary – but the experience of many practitioners suggests that it is wrong to assume that all such interactions result in harm. Further, even in situations where there is a perceptible potential for harm, it is not always reasonable to expect a journalist to do everything possible to minimise that harm because “respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism” (MEAA, 1999) and, as a result, the principle of minimising harm often clashes head-on with the principle of truth-telling. (Black et al., 1997, p. 40).

Associated with harm is the notion of “risk”, defined in the National Statement as “a potential for harm, discomfort or inconvenience” which involves “the likelihood that a harm (or discomfort or inconvenience) will occur; and the severity of the harm, including its consequences” (NHMRC, 2007a, p. 15). Assessing risk is not easy. To assist HRECs in working through this, the 2007 review of the National Statement provided for three levels of risk: negligible risk research (in which the only foreseeable risk is no more than inconvenience); low-risk research (in which the only foreseeable risk is discomfort); and research which is more than low risk. But, while this is a significant advance on the previous situation, there is continuing tension because “what distinguishes efforts to manage the risks of social scientific research is that they involve almost no consideration of empirical evidence of risk” and, as a result, “committee decisions about risk continue to be subjective and ad hoc” (Haggerty, 2004, pp. 402-403).This contributes to a tendency to manage research proposals “on the basis of a worst-case scenario, even when actual risk may not be much greater than the likelihood of a real-world version of events in The Day the Earth Stood Still” (Nelson, 2004, p. 211).

Research ethics requirements are especially problematic for researchers working in the field of investigative journalism. The case for not seeking informed consent from those engaged in the less savoury practices which are often the focus of investigative research is obvious. At the same time, notions such as “respect for persons” can pose difficulties. While in general it is difficult to dispute the importance of recognising what the National Statement calls the “intrinsic value” of human participants (NHMRC, 2007a, p. 13), the ethical principle of “respect for persons” can be an issue for research designed to be critical of the participants. As Nelson has pointed out, if the participants are members of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi Party, they “might merit humanity qualified with disapproval and … might on occasion appropriately be challenged aggressively in an interview” (Nelson, 2004, p. 210).

Journalism research
Central to this discussion is what is meant by “journalism research”. As indicated above, there is a great diversity in the ways that scholars have conceptualised “journalism”. Not only is there a lack of consensus about how to understand journalism, but also “a glaring disconnect taints the spaces between journalistic practice and journalistic inquiry” (Zelizer, 2004, p. 7). This helps explain why the debate about what constitutes journalism research has been so intense and so protracted. While many journalism academics conduct research which leads to publication in academic journals, many also continue to practise their profession after joining the academy and thus publish in regular media outlets. Sometimes they draw on the same research for both forms of publication and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the outcomes of these efforts are serious and sometimes they are trivial (see, for example, Bromley, 2006). But, as Wendy Bacon has argued: “To build journalism as a professional practice form of research in a university is a challenging, long-term and necessarily collaborative project.” (2006, p. 155)

Our collective efforts could involve working both with journalists whose journalism we regard as research and journalism studies academics who wish to avoid the pitfalls of becoming distant from journalism as active practice; establishing closer links with other creative and professional practice fields; developing “journalism as research” exemplars and peer reviewed outlets; and promoting a research atmosphere which encourages risk taking and experimentation. (Bacon, 2006, p. 155)

As far as this discussion is concerned, the point is that, in many of these situations, it would be difficult to describe what is taking place at the centre of this long-term project as anything but “research”.

The issues around journalism research might have remained of interest only to those operating from within the discipline of journalism were it not for the Australian Government’s efforts to introduce national measures of research quality. What began as the Research Quality Framework under the previous Liberal Government has evolved into the Labor Government’s Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, currently being developed by the Australian Research Council. The stated aim of ERA is to “assess research quality within Australia’s higher education institutions using a combination of indicators and expert review by committees comprising experienced, internationally-recognised experts” (Australian Research Council, 2009). While a discussion of ERA is beyond the scope of this paper, it is clear that resource advantages will flow to those disciplines producing research outputs deemed to be of “quality” according to ERA’s measures. Obviously, journalism academics want to benefit from this initiative, and hence are keen for all forms of their research to be included in the ERA process. This makes it difficult to argue that any journalism outputs should be exempt from institutional ethics requirements.

Such a conclusion is encouraged by the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, which complements the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. Released in 2007, the Code is intended to guide institutions and researchers in responsible research practice. It covers a range of topics from management of research data and supervision of research trainees to publication and dissemination of research findings, authorship and conflicts of interest. Among other things, it stipulates that researchers need to comply with the requirements of the National Statement. The Code includes a brief elaboration of what “research” means, although as the United Kingdom’s Research Assessment Exercise demonstrated, this can be a fraught exercise. In the UK, research was defined as:

… work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship, the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental developments to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. (RAE, 2008)

Specifically excluded was “routine testing and routine analysis of materials, components and processes such as for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques. It also excludes the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research.” (RAE, 2008).

The designers of the Australian Code adopted a different approach. After acknowledging that “there is no simple, single way to define research for all disciplines”, the Code defines it simply as “original investigation undertaken to gain knowledge, understanding and insight” (NHMRC, 2007b, p. 1). This is more straightforward than the RAE version, and presumably was intended to avoid the sorts of complications that effort precipitated. However, by avoiding one set of issues it has raised others, not least that its generic and inclusive nature means that much academic output formerly located beyond the boundaries of traditional “research” now appears to fall within those boundaries. Thus it appears that journalistic research for material published or broadcast in the mainstream media, for example, may now fall within the formal definition of research and thus be subject to institutional ethics requirements.

This development undermines the position adopted by many journalism academics that, while research leading to publication in academic journals requires ethics approval, research which leads to publication in the news media does not. The case in support of this position rests on the argument that the imposition of ethics requirements on research for media publication is a form of censorship which interferes with the ability of journalists to carry out their traditional role to “inform citizens and animate democracy” and “give a practical form to freedom of expression” (MEAA, 1999). However, this case has not been developed or widely aired in Australia. In the US, where institutional review boards have commonly made a distinction between academic research and research for journalistic publication, it has been claimed that the boards have been intimidated by the power of the press and thus “excuse university journalists from evaluation of harm done to human participants for political, not principled, reasons” (Nelson, 2004, p. 211). While this does not appear to be the case in Australia, it seems clear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that any journalism research published outside academic journals should be exempt from institutional ethics requirements. Thus the role of the committees which interpret and apply these requirements has become a central consideration for all journalism researchers in Australian universities.

Position of HRECs
In considering the role of HRECs, it is important to acknowledge that they cannot guarantee ethical research; only ethical researchers can do that. But, as the preceding discussion indicates, it seems clear that the responsibilities of HRECs have been extended to all human research conducted by journalism academics, regardless of where the results are published.

Guillemin and Gillam have distinguished between two dimensions of research ethics – “procedural ethics”, which involves seeking approval from a relevant ethics committee, and “ethics-in-practice”, meaning the everyday ethics issues that arise when actually conducting research (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004, p. 260). HRECs play an obvious role in procedural ethics, but are much less significant in ethics-in-practice because they “cannot help when you are in the field and difficult, unexpected situations arise, when you are forced to make immediate decisions about ethical concerns, or when information is revealed that suggests you or your participants are at risk” (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004, p. 273).

Despite their limitations, HRECs continue to make a positive contribution to the research process. They play a key role in protecting the basic rights and safety of research participants from more obvious forms of abuse. Undergoing HREC scrutiny forces researchers to consider the potential harms of their research and reminds them “to consider such issues as the potential risks to participants, the balancing of the benefits of the research against those risks, the steps needed to ensure confidentiality of data, and the inclusion of consent forms and plain language statements in the material provided to participants” (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004, pp. 267-268). In gaining ethics approval, the researcher also meets wider institutional requirements and gains institutional credibility. Intense and often divisive debates are a feature of most disciplines, and these debates often spill over into research. In such an environment, HRECs provide “a forum for resolving disputes by means of rational argument, structured discussion and clear communication, and for assisting communities to develop a greater capacity for self-understanding” (Komesaroff, 2002, p. 68).

Underlying all of these arguments is the indisputable fact that no one has an automatic right to conduct research on other humans. There is an implicit contract with the public that permits academics to engage in such activity, and the freedom to continue is “in large part, the product of individual and social goodwill and depends on us acting in ways that are not harmful and are just” (Israel & Hay, 2006, p. 3). The wider community needs to be able to trust those carrying out research, and those conducting research need to be accountable to the wider community. HRECs help address this need, and in doing so assist in maintaining a level of trust from those outside the research community.

What, then, does all this mean for journalism researchers? A recent study of how Australian HREC members and researchers make decisions about ethical issues in health research concluded there was room to improve the ethics approval process and a need to open communication and improve dialogue between researchers and HRECs (Gillam, Guillemin, Bolitho & Rosenthal, 2009). To address this, the researchers recommended “the active promotion of researchers’ understanding of the HREC processes and what the HREC is trying to achieve; and active attempts to send the message that achieving high ethical standards in research is a collaborative process” (2009, p. 7.14). It seems clear that such communication and dialogue is also required between HRECs and journalism researchers. For such dialogue to be genuinely useful, journalism academics will need to speak with something approaching a common voice. This means they will need to agree among themselves just what constitutes journalism research and what doesn’t, and to develop a common approach to the major points of contention.

In practice, neither forming a united front on research ethics nor developing a dialogue with HRECs will be easy for journalism academics, in part because the work environments from which most have emerged are not necessarily conducive to developing an interest in ethics. In many countries, including Australia, it is possible to practise as a journalist for years and never so much as look at an ethics code. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to support Kennamer’s view that: “The path followed by researchers in establishing a more humane and compassionate approach to their research participants can fruitfully inform journalistic practice.” (Kennamer, 2005, p. 87) One of the consequences of this situation is that many practitioners who move into academe begin their professional academic lives at a disadvantage in relation to ethics. When they discover that it is not possible to avoid research ethics requirements, the result can be confusion and resentment. In the US, it has been claimed that institutional review boards frequently deal with “arrogant senior faculty who feel it is their inalienable right to conduct any research they choose” (Nelson, 2004, p. 213). Similarly, in Australia many researchers, including some in the field of journalism, consider that no one should have the authority to influence the way they approach their research. These broader background forces help explain the distance which often exists between journalism academics and their local ethics committees, and why so few journalism academics have been prepared to serve on these committees. The net effect is that few of them have acquired the level of experience and understanding necessary to engage with research ethics issues at an institutional level.

One potential bridge between the fields of journalism and research ethics may be the notion of researcher reflexivity, which Guillemin and Gillam (2004) have argued is a “most useful” means of responding to ethical events as they arise in research. More than 20 years ago, Donald Schön (1987) proposed “reflection-in-action” as a way of equipping professionals with the ability to reflect on problems and make crucial decisions in the midst of practice. Although he used examples from architecture, music, psychoanalytic supervision, consulting and town planning, it has been argued that Schön’s case is no less relevant to journalism (for fuller discussion, see, for example, Richards, 2005; Pearson, 2000; Sheridan Burns, 1996). Indeed, the notion appears to have particular relevance to journalism ethics because “faced with ethical dilemmas, the reflective journalistic practitioner needs to be able to test ideas against practical experience, be engaged with the social context in which he or she operates, and have the ability to reflect upon dilemmas and make crucial decisions in the midst of practice” (Richards, 2005, p. 155). This is not far removed from the notion of researcher reflexivity. In qualitative research, the reflexive researcher “systematically reflects on who he or she is in the inquiry and is sensitive to his or her personal biography and how it shapes the study” (Creswell, 2003, p. 182). In regard to ethics, being reflexive means “acknowledging and being sensitised to the micro-ethical dimensions of research practice and in doing so being alert to, and prepared for, ways of dealing with the ethical tensions that arise” (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004, p. 278). This brings many positive benefits because:

In the actual conduct of research, the reflexive researcher will be better placed to be aware of ethically important moments as they arise and will have a basis for responding in a way that is likely to be ethically appropriate, even with unforeseen situations. (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004, p. 277)

The need to be reflexive is widely accepted among qualitative researchers, and it may be that journalists moving into academe can build upon reflection-in-action to develop genuine reflexivity. In this way, they can come to engage with ethics processes, rather than resisting or undermining them.

For their part, HRECs appear to have a responsibility to try to work out where journalism researchers are coming from. The National Statement makes it clear that an important element of the notion of respect for human beings is “having due regard for the welfare, beliefs, perceptions, customs and cultural heritage, both individual and collective, of those involved in research” (NHMRC, 2007a, p. 13). While this is primarily aimed at research participants, it surely also applies to those who conduct the research. In other words, HRECs need to be prepared to understand the professional contexts which form the backgrounds of an increasing number of academic researchers. This does not mean waiving the requirements of the National Statement but, rather, that in interpreting its ethical guidelines, members of HRECs should incorporate “deliberation on the values and principles, exercise of judgement, and an appreciation of context” (NHMRC, 2007a, p. 13) in relation to journalism research projects.

In summary, an informed dialogue is required between those with institutional responsibility for research ethics and those who conduct research in the emerging discipline of journalism. Whether they like it or not, the latter group has little choice but to engage in such a dialogue, for ethics requirements and the HRECs which lie at the heart of them are a fact of research life in Australia. Despite the difficulties ethics committees might have caused some sections of the research community, many would agree with the view that they have “contributed both to reducing harm in the research process itself and to enhancing the communities within which research is conducted” (Komesaroff, 2002, p. 70). In short, HRECs work, and work well. The challenge is to get them to work for journalism research.

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Ian Richards is professor of journalism at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. He is also chair of the University’s Human Research Ethics Committee. The author would like to thank Lynne Gillam, Rhonda Breit, Kathryn Bowd and Vicki Allen for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Please note that any typographical errors in this version of this article are likely to have resulted from its transposition into WordPress and will not appear in the original version.

Reproduced with permission from the Australian Journalism Review:

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