Friday, April 29, 2016

University Research and Journalism: Distinctions Without Differences

Google Scholar belatedly alerts me a 2014 article in which two philosophers of education seek to distinguish investigative journalism from university-sponsored community research. They suggest it makes sense to require IRB oversight of the latter but not the former, but their arguments rest on factually doubtful claims of uncertain relevance, and they fail to show that IRB oversight makes sense for either type of research.

[Anne Newman and Ronald David Glass, “Comparing Ethical and Epistemic Standards for Investigative Journalists and Equity-Oriented Collaborative Community-Based Researchers: Why Working for a University Matters,” Journal of Higher Education 85, no. 3 (2014): 283–311, doi:10.1353/jhe.2014.0013.]

As noted on this blog, many IRB apologists are sufficiently steeped in American traditions of freedom of the press to avoid calling for IRB oversight of journalism. Some, like James Weinstein, try to distinguish the two by disparaging social science as focusing on “subjects not of public concern.” Others, like Martin Meeker, take the opposite stance, suggesting that journalism is too full of “blatant bias and even hyperbole” to be taken seriously.

Though they don’t cite Meeker, Newman and Glass follow his line and attack Weinstein, arguing that equity-oriented collaborative community-based research (EOCCBR) does indeed address “policy issues that are undoubtedly matters of public concern (e.g., drinking water contamination, mentoring programs for parolees, civic engagement of low-income racialized youth).” How then, can they justify prior restraint?

Silly Claim 1: Reporters Don't Disclose Methodology

Newman and Glass’s article is long and somewhat rambling, so I’m not sure how many distinctions they hope to draw between university research and journalism. I will choose two to illustrate their failure to offer evidence or to explain the relevance of their assumptions.

The first concerns methodology. They write,

The institutional contexts in which journalists and researchers carry out their investigations and the epistemological aims that guide their studies shape how they employ seemingly similar methods. A key difference that results is the variance in the methodological transparency expected of them. Researchers must disclose how they collected their data and rigorously justify their decision in their publications; these methodological matters provide other researchers with crucial information for checking the soundness and validity of any claims made from the findings, so the methods and the transparency are both central elements of the research story being told. By contrast, journalists typically provide little, if any, methodological information in their reports, even leaving out explanations of how and why particular interviewees were selected. Readers generally do not consider replicating the investigation nor do they critically assess the knowledge claims against the proffered methods. Readers are simply to enter the story as presented and assume that appropriate individuals were consulted and the right events observed to illuminate the issues at hand. Researchers must wear their methodology on their sleeves, so to speak, while for reporters it remains hidden in the background, shared with editors but not with the reader. (295)

I guess Newman and Glass don’t consider themselves researchers, because they disclose nothing about the methods that led them to this alleged finding. In contrast, since it’s Pulitzer season, let’s take a look at the purported obscurity of investigative journalists’ methods:

The Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune spent more than a year chronicling life in these institutions, interviewing patients and their families and examining thousands of pages of government records. Using police and hospital reports from across the state, reporters pieced together the first comprehensive list of injuries and violent attacks inside Florida’s mental institutions.


Three reporters for the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune spent more than a year investigating Florida’s largest state mental hospitals.

Reporters interviewed dozens of current and former employees and crisscrossed the state to talk to mental patients and their families.

The newspapers collected “critical incident” reports from the state Department of Children and Families, which oversees the hospitals. But those reports provide an incomplete picture because they only track the most serious incidents. In addition, agency officials said they had lost reports for some hospitals in recent years.

To better chronicle conditions at the hospitals, reporters obtained public records on thousands of police calls made from mental hospitals across the state. They used the records to create a first-of-its kind database, representing the most comprehensive list of injuries and violent episodes ever created for Florida’s mental institutions.

In calculating the number of incidents over time, the Times/Herald-Tribune discarded allegations that police dismissed as unfounded. In the case of South Florida State Hospital, however, that could not be determined because the Pembroke Pines Police Department was unable to provide copies of its reports.

When calculating budget cuts, the Times/Herald-Tribune used official figures published on the Florida Fiscal Portal, which include DCF’s administrative costs.


In the name of patient privacy, the state has built a wall of secrecy around its mental hospitals, making it nearly impossible to track how they respond to abuse, neglect and carelessness by government workers.
Over the past year, as the Times/Herald-Tribune investigated injuries at six of the state’s primary mental institutions, officials repeatedly denied reporters information.

In some cases, they used their power to classify fatalities as natural or accidental even though employee mistakes or neglect contributed to the deaths.

In others, they cited a law that experts say was designed to crack down on abusers, but now protects them.
When reporters asked for the names of hospital employees accused of abuse, state officials refused.

They said Florida Statute 415.107 — a law to protect the identity of victims and people who report abuse — also covers the names of abusers.

Like everyone else, mental patients have a legal right to keep their medical records private.

But hospitals also use those privacy laws to make it harder to get information about unscrupulous or inept employees.

Even parents can be denied information when their adult child is injured or killed in the state’s care. (Leonora LaPeter Anton, Anthony Cormier, and Michael Braga, “Insane. Invisible. In Danger,” Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, October 29, 2015.)


The top administrator at each of Florida’s six largest institutions declined to speak with the Times/Herald-Tribune.
Doug McKenzie, who was being held at Treasure Coast, was one of the few current patients who agreed to be interviewed. Hospital officials approved the interview only after the newspapers’ attorneys intervened.

But soon after approving the visit, hospital staff encouraged him to cancel it, said McKenzie’s mother, CJ. She said they offered him extra food and promised to transfer him to a less restrictive facility. The day before the scheduled interview, an assistant for hospital director George Gintoli emailed the reporter to say McKenzie had rescinded his invitation. The interview was cancelled.

Three months later, McKenzie was transferred.
“They really didn’t want him talking to you guys,” his mother said. “The guards would walk by and tell him: ’Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame, Doug.’ His counselor was practically begging him not to talk.”

A spokeswoman for the company that runs Treasure Coast said his transfer was unrelated and denied that anyone encouraged McKenzie to cancel the interview.

CJ McKenzie, who drove four hours every Sunday to see her son at Treasure Coast, believes that the mental hospitals don’t want the public to hear from the patients they serve.

“They don’t want people like Doug telling you what really happens inside those places,” she said.

(Leonora LaPeter Anton, Anthony Cormier, and Michael Braga, “Shrouded in Secrecy,” Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune, November 2, 2015.)

Do Newman and Glass really believe that scholarly researchers offer that much transparency?

I realize that these examples were published after Newman and Glass wrote their essay, but you can find comparable statements in earlier investigative work in the Pulitzer archive. You could also compare the investigative reporting cited by Newman and Glass, only there isn’t any.

Silly Claim 2: Reporters Don't Work for Tax-Exempt Institutions

A similarly bizarre claim comes a few pages later:

Another key distinction follows from how reporters and researchers conceive of their work in relation to the government and pressing social problems. investigative journalists and collaborative researchers share a strong commitment to identifying and diagnosing injustice. Yet the target of their concern is necessarily different due to their institutional commitments and norms. A key motivation for journalists’ work is to guard against government abuses or to arouse public concern about an overlooked issue. University-based researchers, by contrast, must typically avoid direct political advocacy and commentary given the traditional notion of academic research as impartial and apolitical and given legal constraints on partisan political activities by 501(c)3 organizations. (300)

In fact, while 501(c)(3) status limits an organization’s ability to participate in political campaigns or to lobby for legislation, it does nothing to restrict their ability to to “arouse public concern about an overlooked issue” or to engage in commentary. As the IRS explains, “Organizations may … involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying.  For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.”

Newman and Glass might have figured this out had they read their own reference list, which is mostly composed of academic researchers hoping to arouse public concern about an overlooked issue: the overregulation of human subjects research. Heck, Newman herself is an employee of the Leland Stanford Junior University, a tax-exempt institution under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and here she is writing about the subject.

For that matter, many investigative journalism organizations enjoy 501(c)(3) status. This includes ProPublica, another 2016 Pulitzer winner.

Some key distinction!

These alleged distinctions about methodological transparency and tax status are not merely non-existent; they are irrelevant. For what is the significance of methodological reporting or tax exemption to the freedom to ask questions without prior restraint? Newman and Glass never connect the dots.

One Possible Distinction

The profusion of inaccurate and silly non-distinctions distracts from the one potentially important distinction made by Newman and Glass: that reporters and community researchers have fundamentally different relationships with the people they interview.

A notable difference remains in relation to the ethical obligations that engaged scholarship entails compared to investigative journalism. Journalists typically have limited and transactional connections to their interviewees and the extent of their relationship is generally directed at getting a story told and published: “The journalist’s first obligation is to the public and the public’s right to know and is not to the person or persons interviewed." Although some reporters establish long-term connections to sources on their beats, once investigative journalists tell a story, they usually move on to a new assignment. EOCCBR researchers, by contrast, often have ongoing and far more egalitarian and robust relationships with their partnering individuals and communities. this relational contrast becomes evident in the tensions that arise regarding who owns the data collected and who controls how community members and their concerns are represented in presentations and publications. concern for such tensions can only arise in the context of relationships of mutual respect and collaboration; for most journalists, these sorts of issues are moot given the transactional nature of their interactions. (302)

As Newman and Glass mention in that passage, we can think of exceptions, but I am tentatively willing to accept this general distinction. What, then, are the implications?

Newman and Glass themselves note that the less transactional a relationship is, the worse IRBs are likely to muck it up:

The mismatch between EOCCBR and standard IRB norms can actually thwart meaningful ethical review. For example, obtaining written, informed consent is a bedrock IRB ethical requirement. the standard consent process is transactional at a moment in time, and research “subjects” agree to participate only after being appraised of the predetermined and fixed “treatment” they will undergo. yet EOCCBR rests on an ongoing, negotiated, and collaborative relationship between researchers and community partners who codevelop the inquiry goals and process—and who may be both researcher and research subject. Additionally, the emergent nature of the research process may make it impossible in some cases to delineate at the outset the experiences a research participant might have. EOCCBR scholars also often work with communities that make decisions collectively (e.g., some tribal communities) or in contexts where group-level stigmas and potential harms are significant concerns (e.g., the HIV-positive community). in these contexts, the standard, individualistic consent process that focuses on individual harm does not necessarily ensure the ethical integrity of research (288).


The ongoing nature of EOCCBR researchers’ relationships with community partners, however, may warrant more strict assurance from researchers that they have a process for maintaining open communication, on equal terms, with community partners to address ethical issues and conflicts that may arise over time, particularly those that pertain to inequitable power in relation to race, gender, and class. monitoring these processes is clearly outside the scope of what an iRB can reasonably accomplish; this makes it all the more important to foster a research culture where ethical issues are prominent and integral to the assessment of academically sound work. this ethically sensitive research culture could be encouraged by requiring authors to make explicit in their publications how they have attended to the ethical issues their research raises, in the same way that they are now expected to make transparent their methodology. (307)

In other words, the real distinction between journalism and community-based research is that while IRBs are bad for journalists, they are even worse for community researchers. For both forms of research, other mechanisms, such as explicit discussions of research ethics in publications, would better serve researchers, readers, and citizens alike.

Newman and Glass conclude, “the IRB process, as flawed as it may be in the context of EOCCBR, is essential to ensuring that university-community collaborations can advance social justice, uphold academic standards, and respect community partners.” (307)

Nothing in the article supports this conclusion.

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