Is this diagram unethical? Questions about journalism and research ethics.

As I said in my first blog post, I’m going to use this blog to think about some of the things I’m working on with Cited. And I want your feedback — especially if you an academic, journalist, community-engaged scholar, or person who does knowledge mobilization.

Ok, basically what we are trying to do is tell amazing stories that are either about research and the university itself or are informed strongly by some interesting bit of research. We hope that this disseminates knowledge and ideas, serves communities, and enriches a broader public discussion. But here’s where an ethical conundrum comes up. And in the interest of full transparency, I’m going to write about it.

I’m writing a grant that is in part trying to create a way to test out a new form of knowledge mobilization. We’re trying to find a way to do this a kind of co-creation with academics, community, and media organizations. It’s a radio show produced at UBC with government research money, but with the input of all these diverse groups.

We’ve co-produced an episode with a scholar before. And we’ve had close academic sources who funnel us ideas and help us think critically about a discipline. I don’t think there’s anything too tricky there. Moreover, we’ve had close community sources. But if we co-produced an episode with a professor or community group and that episode is about their work, obviously that gets into much murkier territory. We’re not doing that, and we’ll never do that.

We’d like to take a look at community needs and issues (i.e. consult community groups on those things), find scholars and scholarship that addresses those issues, tie that together in a radio documentary, and have that documentary air on a typical news organization.

This isn’t the typical source <-> journalist relationship. Because we’re setting out and saying that we are partnering with these research institutes, and we’re going to look to them and try to build stories around some of the ideas of their scholars and the ideas that surround their disciplines. These institutes will not write or co-write these stories, but they will serve as intellectual inspiration for much of what we look at.

We don’t want our radio show to be PR for academics or activists. We want it to be real journalism that tells stories about important research, and applies that research to the issues of the day. So, I’ve tried to come up with a way to ensure that this happens.

This is partly inspired by this field called community-engaged scholarship, which looks at connecting research and researchers to community need–while still maintaining the academic integrity of the professors. That’s a pretty robust discipline, and I’m trying to find a way to retrofit that into a kind of relationship that includes media organizations–but never transgresses cardinal journalistic values.

So here’s a diagram.


Above you’ll see Cited, A (for academy), and C (for community). We tell a story about the things that are happening with A and C. A and C help us find those things. Then, things move from Cited to the media organization. The arrow works both ways because they are going to work with us on the piece (at least editing it, but in some cases co-reporting).

Notice four wiggly lines. I call them ethical standards, or defence systems against us fucking up. There’s one covering up the C. That’s the organizations charter, or mandate, or values. Obviously, they are not going to take part if something is offensive to who they are. Further, we’re not going to work with somebody who won’t let criticism through that wiggly line. Then there’s a wiggly line protecting the academics. That’s peer review. We’re not telling stories about ideas that haven’t been reviewed thoroughly and independently. Then there’s the Cited wiggly line. That’s going to be a charter. I haven’t written it yet, but it basically will say something like: we share some common values (that all journalists do), like seeking strong evidence and using it to serve and inform communities, so we’re going to have a relationship with these As and Cs. But this isn’t PR that we’re doing. We’re going to ask critical questions, we’re going to bring in other voices, and we’re not going to give up edits. There’s another wiggly line there protecting the media organization. That’s the SPJ code, or whatever ethical guidelines the journalists follow. Nobody is publishing anything that doesn’t meet their standard.

Hopefully, all of this is enough of a check. Is this unethical? What more do I need to put in the diagram? What else should be in the charter? What questions or concerns do you have?