“When in doubt, don’t”

Ethics can be defined as a system of moral principles and a branch of philosophy which defines what is good for individuals and society. Furthermore, they can be seen as guidelines for right and wrong behaviour.

Ethics are inherently crucial in conducting any research firstly, as the lecture explains, because they eliminate potential harm and address issues such as informed consent, privacy, confidentiality and anonymity. To provide an example of why ethical codes can be critical to research, imagine a world without anonymous sources that assist in countless criminal investigations and takedowns. If the safety of ethical standards wasn’t applied to those who (more often than not) selflessly share information for the benefit of others, then the act would rarely be seen.


Building upon this, Weerakkody’s ‘Research ethics in Media and Communication’ offers a number of case studies that reflect the complexities of research ethics. Many variables have to be accounted for and the subjectivity of ethics often comes into play. The reading suggests that legal and institutional regulations that govern such practices only rely upon general understanding of moral guidelines. It argues that a research project should be conducted in an objective manner, free from the researchers personal biases and predjudices. Weerakkody then notes however that it is “impossible for humans to practice absolute objectivity because we carry a certain level of subjectivity in whatever we do” i.e. it’s simply human nature.

That leaves the practice of ‘ethically sound’ research somewhere in limbo. Sure, the legal regulations placed upon research help in maintaing a standard of practice, but as we all know sometimes the law itself can have ethical violations. Take the new Telecommunications Amendment in Australia (previously formed in 1979), which some clever polly also referred to as the “Interception and Access” act – or you may have heard of it as the new data retention scheme. The new laws “require telecommunications service providers to retain and to secure for two years telecommunications data (not content)” for the use of “limited agencies”. While it is the case that this retained data is protected through encryption hopefully “preventing unauthorised interference and access”, security and privacy simply cannot be guaranteed. Here in lies the ethical dilemma.

Knowing that regulatory bodies still operate under some level of subjectivity, where then can we find a template for proper ethical practices in research than often transcends the laws and regulation outlines? Tinkler recognises these boundaries and offers a solution recognising that there are no easy answers. She continues to explain that researchers must find their own way through ethical dilemmas keeping in mind that it is best to be “upfront about the decisions you make, not least because it shows that you are a responsible researcher who has taken the time to consider the issues”.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Mackay – “When in doubt, don’t”

Tinkler, Penny 2013, ‘Ethical issues and legalities’, in Using photographs in social and historical research, SAGE, London, pp. 195-208

Weerakkody, Niranjala Damayanthi 2008, ‘Research ethics in media and communication’, in Research methods for media and communications, Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, South Melbourne, Vic., pp. 73-91

2 thoughts on ““When in doubt, don’t”

  1. Michelle Kruger says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking article which gave me the feeling that you indeed had been a ‘responsible researcher who ha[d] taken the time to consider the issues’. I think you highlighted the problems and uncertainties associated with ‘ethically sound’ research when you said it was in limbo. This created a mental image for me. I imagined today’s ethical standards following the line from Chubby Checkers ‘Limbo Rock’- How low can you go? I think the problem with blanket regulation is that it is unable meet the unusual and fast paced changes that occur in our digital media-scape and after all, researchers are only human. In order to get under rigid ethical guidelines (the limbo stick) the researcher bends so far that [s]he falls down. Or [s]he doesn’t, and in that instance [s]he becomes a limbo star who has bent all the rules.
    Great post!

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