I Just Received a Media Request… What Should I Do?
The Opportunities and Ethical Challenges of Media Interaction for Psychologists
People are consuming and interacting with the media at increasingly high rates. Generally defined as a means of mass communication (“Oxford Dictionaries,” n.d.), the media includes radio, television, film, published written content, and the internet. According to 2017 data from Statistica (www.statistica.com) the average U.S. adult spent over 12 hours a day engaging with media, with television being the most consumed medium (“Average Time Spent”, n.d.). Furthermore, recent data from the Pew Institute suggests that 73% of U.S. adults use YouTube and 68% use Facebook (“Social Media Use in 2018”, 2018).
As people increasingly interact with the media, psychologists encounter unique opportunities for engagement (“Reflections on Media Ethics”, 2008). Not only do we use it in our personal and professional lives (e.g., individual Facebook page, advertising a private practice), but are often asked to share our expertise with the public through various communication venues. For example, psychologists may write an ongoing blog, be asked to promote their latest research findings on social media sites, deliver a video-recorded talk, host a radio or television show, publically promote a political bill or policy, or be filmed as an expert on a news station (McGarrah, Alvord, Martin, & Haldeman, 2009).
My personal investigation of media ethics intensified in 2014 after giving a TEDx talk (Warren, 2014). After the talk was posted on YouTube, I received many media requests to offer expert commentary on news channels, podcasts, and even films. For the first time in my career, I received opportunities for mainstream media interaction but struggled to find clear guidelines about how psychologists (clinicians, in particular) should interact with the media to maximize benefits and reduce the likelihood of ethical and legal conflicts. Consequently, I consulted various legal groups to understand some of the key benefits and challenges psychologists face when engaging with the media.
Key Benefits of Media Engagement
Primary benefit engagement is that it provides us with a powerful platform to educate and inform the public about our field its practical application to the world. Psychologists offer expertise in many arenas—from mental health to methodology, to cultural/social behavior, to organizational performance enhancement, to forensic investigation—which can be shared with the public in meaningful ways. For example, psychologists can comment on current world events that are challenging for the public to process and understand (e.g., political strife, mental health issues, natural disasters). Additionally, psychologists can use media to advocate for causes relevant to mental health, policy, and social change (DeAngelis, 2018). Media platforms can also help disseminate our scientific work to a wider audience and promote public interest about a given topic (e.g., “Giving Away Psychology”, n.d.).
Furthermore, engaging with the media can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience, as well as provide additional sources of income to professionals. The American Psychological Association’s Public Action Campaign serves as an excellent example of how psychologists can engage with the media in ways that meaningfully benefit the public (“Public Education Campaign Overview”, n.d.).
Key Ethical Challenges
Despite the important advantages of media engagement, psychologists are bound by ethical principles and legal regulations set forth by licensing boards and professional organizations making interactions more challenging (American Psychological Association, 2017). As such, it is essential to critically consider some key ethical challenges prior to engaging with the media.
1) Knowing and Conveying Your Role One of the most important issues when engaging with the media is knowing and conveying your role to the audience, particularly if it may look clinical in nature. Clinical work is generally described as any work involving a clear doctor-patient relationship (“Medical Definition of Clinical”, 2018). In psychology, we often describe a client-therapist relationship as one that 1) exists because a service is being requested; 2) is a one-way fiduciary relationship; 3) requires informed consent; 4) is confidential; 5) involves payment to the psychologist for professional services provided to the client; 6) is focused on a goal that the client hopes to achieve through the work (Corey, 2009).
Given that treatment is confidential, psychologists must consider whether their appearance in the media is or “looks” clinical in nature. Often, the public may misconstrue what “therapy” entails, so they may perceive you to be a “therapist working with a patient” which in turn can be legally and ethically problematic.
2) Commenting on an Issue versus a Person Media outlets often want psychologists to comment on public figures. For example, when a celebrity is dealing with a mental health or personal issue, psychologists are often called upon to comment on that figure’s emotional wellbeing or mental condition. This was a topic of great discussion when President Donald Trump was elected into office (Basken, 2016). Yet, according to the Goldwater Rule (Levin, 2016), psychologists cannot ethically comment on public figures or people whom they have not clinically evaluated. As such, mental health providers cannot comment on a specific person or public figure in the media.
That said, commenting on an issue or topic that emerges because of a figure’s status is one of the best ways psychologists can inform the public. For example, in the face of a mass shooting or suicide, psychologists can offer expert information on these general topics without saying anything about a specific person.
3) Separate Professional Media from Personal Media Many psychologists interact with the media in their personal lives (e.g., a personal Facebook or Instagram page). In addition, personal and professional information about most people—including psychologists—is readily available online (e.g., family information, home address, professional website, Yelp reviews). Although challenging, psychologists must consider how to handle media overlap between personal and work-related relationships. For example, do you accept “friend” requests from current or former students? How do you network and manage collegial relationships online? In general, separating personal from professional information to the degree possible in the media possible is desirable.
4) Competence to Comment When considering a media opportunity, psychologists must consider whether or not they have sufficient education, knowledge, and training to comment. As a representative of the field, psychologists should ensure they are competent to offer expert commentary on the topic requested.
5) Conflicts of Interest In response to any media request, psychologists should disclose conflicts of interest that may exist. This is particularly important to maintaining credibility. For example, if you are promoting a new brand or business through the media, it is important to state whether you are receiving compensation for your media engagement.
Despite the many important benefits media engagement offers to professionals and the public alike, psychologists face key ethical dilemmas that are highly complicated. Given my increased interaction with the media over time, it was important for me to explore and understand what I could do to benefit the public while protecting current and former clients, colleagues, students, and the profession at large. Consequently, I formulated a Professional Media Policy that outlines my conceptual framework, rationale, and policies related to work conducted in the media (Warren, 2018a). This policy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License, which means that any mental health professional is welcome to copy or adapt these policies to suit their professional needs with proper citation (see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/). In addition, I wrote a Digital Media Policy for Current and Former Clients, which is specific to digital media policies in a clinical context (Warren, 2018b). My comments here are by no means an exhaustive list of the benefits and challenges of media engagement. That said, psychologists will likely continue to receive media requests. As we increasingly accept these requests, I hope these documents bring increased dialogue and clarity to the topic of ethical media engagement.