Networked News Lab

This was a knowledge exchange project led by Professor Robin Mansell. It was intended to promote innovative forms of journalism in Kenya and to inform the policies that affect journalism. A group of leading journalists was regularly assembled in Kenya to look critically at news coverage. They were offered support to experiment with innovative approaches to news-making that might address the shortcomings they perceived with current practices.

Ethical issues

The project posed potential safety risks to the co-investigator, Nicholas Benequista, and to participants in its initial intent to carry out activities related to the practice of journalism in Ethiopia, where several journalists had recently been imprisoned for activities carried out in the course of their work. The research conducted by the co-investigator also raised issues related to the research organisational procedures by which student projects are held to ethical standards. Ethics issues were also raised by virtue of involving members of the public in the translation of research into practice, and when disseminating findings.

Journalists were encouraged to experiment with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their reporting practices. Opportunities were sought to publicise the lessons learnt from these activities, including web publishing and at seminars. While this experimentation was often planned together with the co-investigator, and journalistic ethics were carefully considered during this process, the participating journalists were trusted to exercise their own judgment. The risks were that a journalist might breach professional ethics (perhaps by propagating hate speech) while using ICTs, or expose themselves to professional or personal risk if they pushed political boundaries.

In Kenya the participating journalists were all knowledgeable about the country’s political terrain and selected on account of their exceptional reputation for ethical conduct. An advisory committee further guided the project’s activities, and the journalists participated under the supervision of their managers and editors, whose consent for the project was also secured. The project sought to avoid any form of coercion of participants and was conducted transparently. The journalists received technical support for their experiments, but received no compensation; and it was the journalists, not the researcher, who proposed the terms of their engagement with the project.

While the risks to collaborating with journalists in Kenya could be mitigated, political developments in Ethiopia made it impossible to carry out certain activities in that country. The political situation in Ethiopia was actively monitored by the researchers in advance of commencing any research in that country. Unexpected changes in the governing bodies raised uncertainty about the new Ethiopian administration’s relationship with news media. Following the arrest of a number of journalists and bloggers on terrorist charges, the decision was made to cancel the Ethiopian component of the project.

As the ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics states, student researchers should be held to the same high standard of ethics as other researchers. The department committee reviewing the PhD research proposal into the nature of journalistic agency carried out by this project’s co-investigator required a supplementary statement on ethical considerations and contingency planning.

This statement established the student’s commitment to monitor and report on political developments in Ethiopia, which due to the political situation at the time fieldwork was expected to commence was deemed risky and contributed to the decision to cancel that component of the project. The project received ethical approval in line with ESRC guidelines, the LSE Research Ethics Committee criteria and from Kenya’s Ministry of Education.

Lessons

  • While the proposed project satisfied ethical standards for the conduct of research in Ethiopia, the political situation shifted over time from approval for the project and when the activities were scheduled to begin. The special provision that required the student to monitor and report on political developments in Ethiopia contributed to the decision to cancel activities in that country. Without this provision, the ethical review would have missed the rising level of risk.
  • As well as holding students to equal ethical standards as more senior researchers, this case study highlights the importance of department-specific procedures to provide additional ethical oversight of student research.