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Can I have a case study?

July 15th, 2005

Dr Petra

It’s been case study central here today. I’ve had several requests from journalists to provide them cases to go with their sex features. Everything from finding them asexuals to sex addicts, fetishists to flashers.

And the answer each time has been ‘no’.

Not because I didn’t like the journalists concerned, or because I was in a bad mood. It wasn’t because I was selfishly keeping cases to myself or just being picky about whom I was talking to.

It was because every person I see in research is protected.

When people sign up for a study, regardless whether they complete it or not, the researcher promises to protect their anonymity and confidentiality. That means not identifying them in any research reports, conference presentations, or discussions with anyone unrelated to a study (including other colleagues).

The same goes for therapy. Just because someone’s seeing a client it doesn’t mean they can pass that person’s contact details onto a journalist seeking a juicy case history.

Often journalists are unaware of this legally binding agreement and feel that since researchers have so many contacts with participants then they should make them available for the media to talk to.

Unfortunately if we were to act in such a way we’d never gain the trust of the public. It isn’t so difficult to understand, journalists also have to protect their sources.

Sadly some journalists still don’t listen when you explain about protecting participant confidentiality. Here are some of the wheedling tactics I’ve had journalists try on me when seeking a case study….

‘Oh go on, I won’t tell them it was you who gave me their name’
‘They won’t mind talking to me, I write for a magazine that’s better known than your university’
‘They’ll get a makeover’
‘It’s okay, I’ll pay them for their time’
‘I’ll pay you if you can get me some contacts’

Any researcher who’s willing to breach confidentiality is acting unprofessionally and putting their participants at risk. Since you can’t trust them to look after their participants, can you trust anything else they say?

The problem is journalists are put under pressure by editors to find cases and even though people like myself constantly tell journalists we can’t provide cases (lord knows it even says it on the press page of my website) they still ask. This can lead to bad relations between the media and experts since you feel the journalist isn’t respecting your professional boundaries or the rights of your participants by asking for something you can never provide.

It’s time journalists reported back to editors that researchers and therapists cannot provide cases, and should they want to find them they’ll have to start exploring other avenues.

I’ve no problem with people being featured in magazine articles. After all both journalists and researchers have to rely on volunteers to get our work done. But that means doing it by the book, not coercing or misleading people into participating. Or getting case stories by stealth.

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