Misconduct and ethics in science and journalism

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Case studies in journalistic ethics

1) A science reporter working on a feature sends an email with his questions to a busy scientist in Asia. The scientist’s assistant says that he is too busy to reply, but sends a document with answers to a different reporter’s questions. Some of the quotes within it are relevant to the reporter’s article.

2) A reporter is working on a story about the influence of radical environmental groups on university campuses, and wants to attend a meeting of one of the groups involved. She contacts the organizer using a private email address, claiming he is a student at the university, to ask for details.

3) A reporter learns from a source within the semiconductor industry of a company that offers its services to manufacturers facing claims that their workers are suffering from illnesses caused by chemical exposure in the workplace. According to the source, the company will, for a fee, recruit scientists who will attempt to place review and commentary articles in scientific journals casting doubt on links between the chemical exposure and disease. The source will only talk on condition that he is not quoted by name. But this is not enough on which to base a story, so the reporter poses as a PR consultant representing the CEO of a manufacturer facing similar problems, and approaches the company as a prospective client. In this way, she obtains details of the services the company offers, confirming the original source’s claims.

4) A reporter becomes aware of websites that appear to be offering a form of genetic testing in a country in which these tests are illegal — the sites have domain names specific to that country (although some actually seem to be hosted elsewhere), and quote prices in the country’s currency. A reporter poses as a customer in that country, sending email queries asking if they will perform tests which he knows are illegal.

5) Two rival research teams have been racing to discover the same disease gene, and eventually their results are published at the same time in competing journals. While a reporter is working on a story about the two teams’ work, the leader of one team approaches him to allege that the other gained an unfair advantage when a lab notebook was taken by a postdoc who moved from one lab to the other. The team leader is willing to be quoted, but only as “a scientist close to the research”.

6) A journalist pitches a feature to an editor about research on the risks associated with a new type of implanted medical device. The editor knows that the journalist has diligently researched the article, and she has every confidence in her integrity. But she is also aware that, because of a life-threatening condition, the journalist has herself been implanted with one of these devices.

7) A reporter is gathering evidence on a case of alleged scientific misconduct, which also involves allegations that grant funding was obtained by fraudulent means. Some members of the research team are already providing information, but one member of the team with information crucial to the story is unwilling to talk, so the reporter suggests that the source may be more likely face criminal prosecution if he fails to tell the truth.

8) A medical reporter working for a local paper is searching on the Internet for a story about the mental health of high school students, and stumbles across hundreds of confidential student psychological reports that have been uploaded by a local school psychologist, presumably without realizing that they would be visible to a search engine. The reports contain the names and birth dates of individual students; some detail suicide attempts, admissions of drug abuse and other sensitive personal information.

9) A reporter who has written on the controversy surrounding whether cellphones can cause brain cancer and other health problems is asked to serve on a committee that will advise a national government on this issue.

10) A medical reporter has become aware of a problem with the security protocols for a research institute database containing thousands of medical records relating to volunteers in clinical research.

Journalism ethics resources

Here is the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code, which was updated in September 2014. Here is the previous version of the code for comparison. The Associated Press Media Editors statement of ethical principles is here.

SPJ has more ethics case studies here.

If you need to seek ethical advice, you can call the SPJ ethics hotline. A member of the SPJ’s ethics committee will call you back to discuss your dilemma.