Four Laurier Brantford Professors have moved this year to create an ethics committee that would oversee student-proposed interviews for Journalism program courses. Professors Sue Ferguson, Thomas Rose, Ian MacRae and Bruce Gillespie have come together after a situation last year caused the Laurier Research Ethics Board in Waterloo to take notice.

“The folks on the ethics board got wind of a journalism project where people they viewed as vulnerable were being interviewed by journalism students,” says Ferguson.

If the board, which primarily deals with psychology and sociology academic programs, determines that student journalists fall under their jurisdiction, strict guidelines would likely be applied, including the requirement to submit questions before conducting interviews. Ferguson doesn’t believe this to be practical for Journalism students.

“Journalism is not necessarily engaging in research,” she explains. “When you’re producing something for a media outlet, it’s quite different than producing something for a scholarly program.”

Ferguson contacted ten Canadian universities with journalism-based programs and found that they all agreed with her criticism. She also discovered that those schools’ journalism programs were also exempt from research ethics review boards.

The Laurier Brantford Ethics Committee, formed only a few weeks ago, has been mulling over ideas that could deal with the very particular ethical issues faced by student journalists.
“We’re thinking about whether it would be good to strike a specific Laurier Brantford code of ethics for journalism students,” says Rose, “which would sort of underscore and highlight the duties and obligations of the student not to engage in unethical practices in attaining information, but also again underscoring and hopefully reiterating the importance of your actions in not harming the participant in the community.”

Other plans are being considered in terms of course requirements as well.

“If law and ethics became a prerequisite course for anyone who wants to do any journalistic reporting,” continues Rose, “… for example, they would have to do that before they’d be allowed to go out into the field and do a major piece.”

He goes on to explain the importance of extending this course as a necessity to anyone, Journalism major or not, taking Journalism program courses, in order to ensure ethical guidelines are met.

Although there has been no specific timeline laid out, the four professors look forward to regular meetings this upcoming year.