Psychological Media Research, Ethics of

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Research ethics are the moral principles and rules of conduct that guide research. In general, researchers must balance two major obligations: (1) contribute to knowledge through research, which ultimately should benefit society, and (2) protect the rights and welfare of research participants. Federally funded research must conform to the ethical guidelines of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many professional associations, such as the American Psychological Association, have ethical guidelines for research with human participants. Most academic institutions require that research proposals be reviewed for ethical standards by institutional review boards (IRBs). Applying ethical principles to research situations is a complex process that requires the consideration of many factors.

Assessing Risks and Benefits

Researchers must assess risks (e.g., costs, harms) and benefits when deciding whether and how to conduct a research study. Any risks to research participants must be carefully weighed in relation to the potential benefits of the research to the participants and to society. Risks of participating in research include the possibility of physical harm or discomfort, as well as psychological harms such as anxiety, embarrassment, reduced self-esteem, and invasion of privacy. The possibility of psychological harm is a serious concern in psychological media research, because studies often examine the harmful effects of media messages. Researchers are obligated to inform participants beforehand about any risks associated with the study and to remove any harms that may have been induced (e.g., fear) during the study. Researchers can reduce the possibility of harm by studying people who have already experienced an aversive state (e.g., interview people about past reactions to horror films) or by inducing minimal levels of stress (e.g., show children a mildly scary film rather than a graphic horror film).

Informed Consent

In general, individuals must be free to choose whether or not to participate in research, and must agree to accept any risks voluntarily. Researchers must avoid coercion, which may occur if someone in authority recruits participants or when large incentives are offered. According to the American Psychological Association (1992), before participating in research, individuals must be informed about the nature of the research, be told that participation is voluntary and that they may withdraw at any time, and be informed about any aspects of the study that might reasonably be expected to influence their willingness to participate (e.g., risks). Often, research participants are not fully informed beforehand about the purposes and procedures of a study, because this would compromise the validity of the research. For example, the responses that participants have to a public-service announcement about safe sex may be affected if the participants know that the source of the message (expert versus peer) was being manipulated. The key issue to consider is whether any concealed information would be likely to affect the decision of an individual to participate.

Occasionally, researchers actively deceive research participants about aspects of a study. Common forms of deception include providing a "cover story," or misinformation about the purpose of the study, using an experimental confederate who acts out a planned role, or providing false feedback during the study. For example, to create a more natural viewing situation, a study of memory for commercials may be described as a study of responses to the comedy program in which the commercials appear. Not all researchers agree on the ethics of using deception. Some feel deception is never justified, because it denies individuals the freedom to make an informed decision about research participation. Others feel deception is justified when the research is meaningful and cannot be conducted any other way, when there is no deception about possible risks, and when participants are debriefed afterward.

Informed consent may not be required in certain field settings. These would include naturalistic observation in a public place and field experiments in which the treatment is within the range of normal experience and poses no risk. For example, a researcher who observed travelers watching television on airport monitors probably would not need informed consent.


At the conclusion of a research study, debriefing is used to inform participants about the full nature and purpose of the study, to explain the necessity for any concealment or deception, and to remove any harm created by the research. For example, research on the effects of violent sexual content in the media typically uses extensive debriefings, including researcher-led discussions. These procedures are designed not only to inform participants about the study, but also to ensure that any adverse effects of participating (e.g., increased acceptance of rape myths) are removed.


All individuals have a right to control access to themselves and to information about themselves. Privacy may be protected, in part, through anonymity or confidentiality. Anonymity means that the researcher does not obtain any identifying information about participants. Confidentiality means that the researcher agrees not to reveal to others any information obtained from participants and that the researcher will disguise identifying characteristics when reporting the results of the research. Privacy issues are of particular concern whenever a researcher plans to film or record participants, gain access to personal records, or ask sensitive personal questions. These procedures can be used responsibly if the researcher is sensitive to the concerns of participants, obtains informed consent, and maintains anonymity or confidentiality.

Research with Special Populations

Special precautions must be taken when conducting research with any population that might be especially vulnerable to research risk or have a reduced capacity to consent to participate, such as individuals who are mentally disabled, ill, or victimized. Another special group is children (under eighteen years of age), who are the focus of much psychological media research. Research with children requires both documented permission from a parent or guardian and the child's agreement to participate. Children are more susceptible to coercion than adults and must be made fully aware that they are under no obligation to participate. Special care must be taken to limit the risks associated with the research. Developmental factors must be considered when judging how children of different ages will respond to research protocols. Debriefing, which must be age-appropriate may be unnecessary with young children who have a limited ability to understand the purpose of the research or the procedures that are involved. In any case, it is important that children leave the research setting in a positive state.

Reporting of Research

Researchers must also make ethical decisions about interpreting and communicating research results. The data must be analyzed appropriately, the procedures and results described fully and accurately, and those who contributed to the research must be given proper acknowledgment. Research reports typically undergo peer review to ensure the quality and significance of the research before being shared with the scientific community (e.g., through publications). Research findings should also be communicated to the general public (e.g., through the news media) when it is likely that the public may benefit from the knowledge. For example, research on children's responses to media messages can aid parents in helping their children become responsible media consumers. Psychological media research should contribute to scientific understanding, but ultimately it should also benefit society.

See also:Audience Researchers; Children's Comprehension of Television; Marketing Research, Careers in; Researchers For Educational Television Programs; Research Methods in Information Studies; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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American Psychological Association. (1992). "Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct." American Psychologist 47:1597-1611.

Greenberg, Bradley S., and Garramone, Gina M.(1989). "Ethical Issues in Mass Communication." In Research Methods in Mass Communication, eds. Guido H. Stempel III and Bruce H. Westley. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kimmel, Allan J. (1996). Ethical Issues in Behavioral Research: A Survey. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Littlejohn, Stephen W. (1991). "Deception in Communication Research." Communication Reports 4:51-54.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1978). The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. (DHEW Publication No. (OS) 78-0012). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Sieber, Joan E. (1992). Planning Ethically Responsible Research: A Guide for Students and Internal Review Boards. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Stanley, Barbara, and Sieber, Joan E., eds. (1992). Social Research on Children and Adolescents: Ethical Issues. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Cynthia A. Hoffner

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Psychological Media Research, Ethics of

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