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Media creates concept of media psychologists, encourages them to be unethical, then acts amazed when they are

April 19th, 2009

Dr Petra

Following the recent email smear scandal involving psychotherapist Derek Draper, blogger Gimpy has a fantastic account of how the media are still not getting this story right. I think this was crystallised for me in a piece in The Guardian which seems to think it’s discovered a ‘crisis in media psychotherapy’.

Let’s be really clear about this. There is a crisis in the media about how they use psychologists/therapists and other ‘self help’ experts. But this is not a new problem. It’s something that’s been bothering professionals for years.

I’ve been campaigning against poor practice among psychologists in the media for the past decade (here’s an example from the New Scientist in 2002). Myself and other colleagues have been complaining to the media and our professional organisations about the misuse/misunderstanding of psychology/therapy within the media – and the unethical practice of many practitioners. Those concerns have largely been ignored, and despite The Guardian believing they’ve uncovered some new trend, I suspect they’ll continue to be overlooked.

The problem of maverick media psychs is not that difficult to understand, or even see evolving. Here’s how this situation has come about.

Journalists don’t always know the difference between a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a therapist and a counsellor. So they treat them all as if they do the same job and frequently have people providing comment on topics they are not qualified to discuss.

Because of the problem above, there have been ludicrous situations where you either have someone completely unqualified making clinical or therapeutic diagnoses, or someone who is very well qualified in one area speaking about a topic they’re totally not qualified in.

That’s due to two factors – professionals not being aware of (or ignoring) their professional boundaries, skills and ethics and not being adequately supervised, plus the media not taking the time to check on the skills, qualifications and limitations of those they’re engaging with.

While there is regulation of psychologists and psychiatrists, and codes of ethical conduct for both parties to adhere to, there’s a minority of well-known ‘celebrity psychologists/psychiatrists’ who consistently breach these regulations. The organisations who they belong to are presumably aware of their activities but seemingly won’t seek to do anything. Either because they’re waiting for other members to make an official complaint (which is a time consuming and often personally risky activity), or because they perhaps rely on the publicity said celeb psychs bring to their discipline. Even if what the celeb psychs are doing is outdated, unethical, judgemental and unrepresentative of psychology/psychiatry.

Counsellors and therapists are not so strictly regulated, but do have professional guidelines to follow. As with psychologists and psychiatrists who act inappropriately there’s not been a huge effort on behalf of counselling/therapy organisations to keep a check on members who’re acting unprofessionally. Again, it’s down to clients or colleagues to blow the whistle on those who’re acting inappropriately – and giving dubious advice/opinion via the media doesn’t seem to be taken all that seriously.

There’s the additional problem of people with no qualifications whatsoever describing themselves (or allowing themselves to be described) as therapists, counsellors, medics, psychiatrists or psychologists – when they have no formal training at all. For example one well-known flirt coach has on occasion allowed themselves to be labeled as either a ‘psychiatrist’ or a ‘psychiatry expert’. Another sex expert draws upon their ‘academic background in psychology’ to suggest current qualifications in this area. While a well known social commentator has been referred to as a ‘therapist’ or ‘psychologist’ within the media.

None of which would be an issue if journalists took the time to check the credentials of those they were engaging with. Unfortunately this rarely happens. What we see all the time is journalists being tasked to create a programme or feature that needs an expert input and they go looking for the expert who’ll say what their editor/producer wants. Practitioners who point out a programme/feature is outdated, unethical or incorrect will simply be avoided in favour of the person who’ll say whatever is required – so long as they get a plug for their book, website or other service.

The media has shifted to work at a faster pace and at a more shallow level. PR-based ‘research’ underpins a lot of stories. The time and opportunity for truly investigative journalism, or even a bit of fact checking, is seemingly long gone. Journalists are under pressure from editors/producers to stack up stories with obligatory mentions of statistics and the appearance of a psychologist. The influence of consumerism has also greatly harmed the media, so most journalists are only really used to people being willing to speak to in return for publicity. And those with something to promote are eager and ready to say anything (or put their names to pre-written quotes) in order to use the media for free publicity.

The cult of using psychologists as experts has grown considerably over the past decade. It means journalists are keen to use psychologists, but often aren’t aware of the wide range of careers that are within this discipline. Moreover, the reliance on the psychologist to stack up stories means journalists are often nervous of using other equally (or more) qualified professionals. Recently one journalist told me she couldn’t use a sociologist for her story – even though it required a comment from one – because she didn’t know what that was and anyway she didn’t think it was ‘qualified, like a psychologist is’.

The rebirth of our obsession with celebrity culture and reality television have provided ample opportunity for psychs of all kind (qualified and self-defined) to comment, judge, opine and generally make their reputation on the back of analysing celebrity body language, gossiping about the lives of the rich and famous, and generalising about the goings on in the Big Brother house (or similar media locations).

So contrary to The Guardian believing there’s been a recent crisis among media psychs, it’s more accurate to say this has been an emerging problem that’s been masterminded by the media, with the compliance of a growing number of practitioners and quacks all willing to manipulate their position and the lives of others in order to gain media coverage and promote themselves.

There are a number of media psychologists, therapists and other practitioners (myself included) who try and do things ethically, carefully and accurately. But it’s been an increasingly difficult position to hold – particularly when you know that no matter how accurate and methodical you are, the majority of journalists you speak to aren’t that bothered what you say so long as you’re helping them stack up a story. If you say something they don’t like – even if you’re right – it’s virtually unheard of for them to take your advice and change their approach. Instead they find someone who’ll say what you won’t. The result has been many ethical practitioners have withdrawn from working with the media finding it distressing, time wasting, and largely unproductive.

When you raise criticisms to journalists some are sympathetic, but an equal number dismiss you as being jealous of those who they perceive as more successful. Why should they listen to you in your ivory tower when rent-a-quote ‘expert’ is always willing to help – and they’ve written a book/been on tv/have a website – what have you ever done?

Sadly what we’re seeing with the cases of Derek Draper and Raj Persaud are not a few psychs-gone-bad as The Guardian seems to belive. What we’re seeing is the ongoing effect of our media to encourage ‘experts’ to act in increasingly unethical and inappropriate ways and rewarding that behaviour as it has suited the agenda of countless magazines, newspapers and television programmes. There are many practitioners doing many unethical things – speaking outside their area, commenting on celebrities and case studies, making judgemental comments, using opinion instead of evidence. They’re not hard to spot. Such practitioners could act professionally and reflexively and check their poor practice, stop it now. As an extra precaution, if the media were really that bothered about media psychs they would refuse to use those who weren’t acting ethically, check the credentials of all experts, and stop asking experts to comment on celebrities.

But they won’t – will they?

Of course not. The same old dodgy practices will continue, the same encouragement by the media to act unethically, and the same types of dubious ‘experts’ will be happy to step up to the unethical plate. And each time there’s a scandal in media therapy the media will see this as entirely the fault of a minority of psychs gone bad, distance themselves from any bad behaviour, and continue to enable unethical practice the very next day. Sadly it’s more lucrative for the media and for ‘experts’ to endorse unprofessional activity. And until such time as that’s no longer an incentive the cult of dodgy media psychology will continue.

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