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Celebrity confidential

June 30th, 2005

Dr Petra

Most journalists have got the message that people working in the health and social sciences aren’t able to comment on celebrities.

Until quite recently any celebrity feature required an ‘expert’ to come on and pass judgement about famous personalities. However guidelines for ethical media work suggest that discussing celebrities is a big no-no.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the reason for this is that if you know a celebrity – for example as a therapy client or perhaps a research participant, then you’re breaching their confidentiality by talking about them to the press. If you don’t know the celebrity then really you’re gossiping about them based on what you’ve seen elsewhere in the media – which is neither accurate nor fair to the celeb, and not really using your professional skills.

Over the years reputable professionals have stuck to these guidelines, and many journalists have learned not to ask us to comment on celebrities – or have turned to less ethical or less qualified people who’re sadly still happy to judge or ‘analyse’ the rich and famous.

Unfortunately today I had a run in with a journalist who hadn’t got up to speed on these ethical standards. They wanted me to comment on a feature that not only required me to discuss a famous sportsperson; their article was also taking in famous businessmen, ex-presidents, and movie stars. In both a phone message and email they listed the angle of their feature – powerful men are all sex addicts.

On my site it clearly states in the press information that I don’t talk about celebrities, so I don’t respond to requests that ask me to do things that I’ve already said I’m not able to help with.

The journalist still tracked me down. Towards the end of the day they called again and asked me if I’d help with the piece. I explained I couldn’t because it required me to talk about celebrities and I that wasn’t okay ethically.

‘Oh but I don’t want you to talk about the celebrities’
they said. Which was a bit funny since their email and previous phone message listed a whole range of people they wanted to talk about. ‘I just want you to explain sex addiction’.

I asked if the celebrities were going to be mentioned and if any pictures of them were to be shown in the feature. The answer was yes to both questions. Meaning even if I did comment on ‘sex addiction’, you could be sure the quotes would appear alongside the celeb photo or under a paragraph describing the celebrity, making it look like I was commenting on famous people.

The media love to write stories around adultery, sex addiction, partner swapping, or kinky sex in relation to celebrity, but frankly we rarely know what celebs get up to behind closed doors and it isn’t the place for health or social scientists to join the merry media throng in taking a guess at the sex lives of the famous.

There’s always a prurient subtext to these stories too. Judging people the media label as ‘cheaters’, ‘sex addicts’ or ‘doggers’. Given that all the health guidance for delivering sex information now states it should be matter of fact and non-judgemental it’s impossible to even comment within these stories since even if you’re not made to sound like you’re talking about a celebrity, you appear in a feature that is never going to be sex-positive.

Not that I bothered going into all this with the journalist since they’re never interested in hearing it and if they’re on a deadline then your moral lecture just pisses them off.

But after pointing out I couldn’t ethically be part of the feature and stating professional guidelines prevented me discussing celebrities, it didn’t put this particular journalist off.
‘Could you recommend someone else then? Another psychologist or academic?’

What bit of ‘our ethical guidelines means we can’t talk about celebrities’ did they not get?

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