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Make me wanna scream

June 29th, 2009

Dr Petra

By now you’ve all heard the sad news about the death of Michael Jackson, and doubtless seen the increasingly ghoulish media coverage of the case.

I was contacted by journalists working on two separate stories about the case today.

The first wanted me to describe what ‘the impact of Jackson’s death’ would be on his children – and speculate on a ‘possible, forthcoming custody battle’ (and again describe what that might do to the children).

The second wanted an in-depth ‘profile’ of Jackson, with a specific request that I show a ‘link’ between Jackson’s childhood experiences and (alleged) subsequent ‘abuse of children’.

I refused to do either. Firstly, to discuss a celebrity and speculate on their lives is unethical and breaches my professional guidelines. (Let’s all repeat the very dull Dr Petra mantra ‘if I know the celeb personally I’m breaching confidentiality by discussing them, and if I don’t know them personally I’m just gossiping about them’).

Secondly neither of the questions I was asked to comment upon are within my area of expertise – so again it would be unethical for me to make any pronouncements about them.

Unfortunately this does not seem to have stopped a number of psychologists from the UK and US from commenting publicly on a variety of issues relating to Jackson and his family.

Here are a few of the worst ones I’ve spotted:
Michael Jackson’s children could be damaged for ever by custody battle, says top psychologist

Jackson: Inside His Mind

Was Michael Jackson’s Death Possibly Attributed to His Inability to Be His “True” Self?

What will happen to Michael Jackson’s kids?

It’s worth noting that not all the people giving ‘psychological insight’ are psychologists, and those who are qualified as psychologists may not belong to any official bodies that oversee professional standards. Sadly some are members of professional bodies but don’t seem to be following their rules.

The impression I got from the two journalists I spoke to was pretty clear. Any psychologist would do. They weren’t bothered about qualifications or expertise. They wanted a quick analysis – as one put it – an insight into ‘Michael Jackson’s Mind’.

Neither journalist accepted my statement that it was unethical for me to comment in the way they requested. Both told me ‘other famous psychologists’ had already ‘analysed Michael Jackson’.

Unfortunately this is a major problem with ethical practice. Because for every professional who is careful, there are many more who are happy to give the media what they want.

The result we’re seeing is the misuse of psychology within the media, the misrepresentation of psychologists, and in some cases the exploitation of a tragic story to promote someone’s products, services or name.

Ethical psychologists are those who don’t try and turn someone’s personal tragedy into their personal gain. They can take a view about whether it’s right for them to comment, and do so in ways that are appropriate. They are also able to decline an interview if they think there’s nothing more to be said, or if it’s better to remain silent.

I’m not saying reporting on the Jackson case is wrong. What is wrong is where psychologists are being invited to go way beyond their skills base and to speculate on someone – mainly based on what they’ve gleaned through the media.

We should always remember in cases like this that there are family members, friends and colleagues who can be deeply hurt by generalisations and speculations. And a wider public who may be misled into thinking what is shared is more than gossip and actually represents a psychological insight into a celebrity.

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