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IRBs and journalism: One university's compromise
Cooperation between journalism school and IRB defines the difference between journalism and research
How do you bridge the gap between an IRB that believes all of the work you do is subject to oversight and a faculty that thinks none of it is?
With a lot of discussion, says Esther Thorson, PhD, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.
"We went back and forth for, I think it was 18 months," Thorson says. "There were people on the (IRB) who said all journalism is research. We had people on our faculty who would almost come apart at the seams if you talked about any journalism student going to the IRB."
In the end, the IRB and journalism school found a middle path, carefully tearing apart activities that were considered to be truly human subjects research and those that were journalism activities protected by the First Amendment.
Thorson gives credit to the former head of the campus IRB, who met with her several times to work out an agreement. "She was just wonderful."
Research vs. "journalistic analysis"
In MU's journalism master's program, Thorson says students can either do a scholarly thesis or a project that produces a journalistic producta photo narrative, for example, or a series of stories or an investigative project. Thorson says that in the case of a project, the goal would be something that was published in the general media, as opposed to a scholarly publication.
"But because our program is theory- and research-based, we also require that there be a research component that's attached to that, original research in support of the project," she says. "It might involve things like interviewing newspaper editors to ask them how they feel about poverty in the Missouri Bootheel.
"The IRB said those research components have to get approval. And our faculty said no they don't, because that is part of the journalistic process. That was a big bone of contention."
After a series of discussions between Thorson and the IRB, they arrived at a solution, creating a category of work called "journalistic analysis," which is not subject to IRB oversight.
Language in the master's program handbook (http://journalism.missouri.edu/graduate/masters/masters-2-year-2011.pdf) explains the distinction between scholarly research and journalistic analysis:
"Professional analysis uses the tools of journalism rather than those of scholarship...The professional analysis examines individuals, institutions or issues relevant to the field."
According to the master's program handbook, the finished analytical article would have to be suitable for publication in a professional or trade magazine.
"We wrote it up very carefully, because we didn't want people who were doing a thesis to say, 'I'm doing journalistic analysis'that would be inappropriate," Thorson says.
She says the journalism school carefully instructs both students and faculty about the policy and how to interpret it. While most of what the journalism school produces is considered journalism, Thorson says there still are some activities fall under IRB oversight.
"Let's say you're studying the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom for a thesis," she says. "You're interviewing people to determine how they deal with self-esteem issues as the national economy goes down and a lot of people get fired. That's research. You're doing it to build knowledge. Your intention is to publish it in a scholarly journal; your intention is not to publish it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch."
Thorson says this agreement has held up for about five years. She's shared the MU approach with other journalism schools that are having similar conflicts with their IRBs.
"I think it's a good solution," she says. "Doing journalism does involve asking human beings questions, observing themall kind of things that could be considered research, but it isn't research. It's journalism, and it's protected by the First Amendment."