Graduate student contests review board’s authority to approve journalism research

MISSOURI — A graduate student’s challenge to a university policy that requires prior approval for research on human subjects has focused attention on what some describe as an unfair governmental check on journalists’ First Amendment rights.

This spring, Michael Carney, a journalism masters student at the University of Missouri at Columbia, became the first to challenge a university policy requiring research projects to gain the approval of a federally mandated institutional review board.

The review board exists to ensure that all research on human subjects is conducted with certain standards in mind. Since 1981, all institutions that receive federal funding for research on humans have been required to maintain such a board.

University officials say that in most cases — such as psychological experiments and clinical drug trials — it is easy to determine that a project should be subject to institutional review. But in other cases, especially those in the social sciences, it becomes murky whether a project should go before the board.

In January, Missouri’s institutional review board rejected Carney’s proposal — an examination of the relationship between the media and public opinion polling — and ordered him to suspend all research on the topic, an action Carney said violated his First Amendment rights.

‘My position is that journalism should not be subject to institutional review by any arm of the government,’ Carney said. ‘Experiments should be subject to institutional review.’

The board rejected Carney’s proposal for two main reasons: because he did not include a mechanism to inform his subjects that they might possibly suffer stress from participating in the interview and because he did not furnish participants with the phone number of a review board representative. Carney said both measures were unnecessary given the fact that he was only interviewing subjects.

Carney, however, did not file a lawsuit. He was allowed to earn his masters degree in May by receiving credit for his research, even though he never gained review board approval. Journalism faculty and administrators decided to grant Carney research credit for writing an analysis of the review board policy from a journalistic and legal perspective, using his own experience as an example.

Carney, who took a temporary job with Reuters working in Israel after graduation, said he plans to publish the results of his research once he returns to the United States.

Carney’s challenge has sparked a discussion among academics and administrators about which types of projects should be considered research, who should be allowed to make that determination and the possible First Amendment implications of requiring certain types of research, such as interviewing, to go before a review board.

George Kennedy, managing editor of the Columbia Missourian, a university-run community newspaper, said Carney’s situation — which will not impact the Missourian — will help journalism students avoid prior restraint.

Kennedy said Carney’s case united journalism faculty in the belief that the decision of whether to send research to the review board should be made at the journalism school and not by administrators more accustomed to dealing with experimental research.

But Vice Provost Robert Hall, who oversees the review board process, said the board does not exist to trample the rights of journalists but to ensure the safety of human subjects.

Hall admitted that the process was subjective, but he said he knew of no formal proposals to alter it.

‘You can see that there really is no bright line,’ Hall said. ‘It’s a judgement call.’

Stuart Loory, a journalism professor who served as Carney’s faculty adviser, said he believes journalism projects should not have to go before the institutional review board. Loory said the decision of whether to require review board approval should be left up to journalism school faculty and administrators.

‘When you send something to the institutional review board, what you are doing is giving someone the capability to license freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and we think that’s wrong,’ he said. ‘And the people you are giving that capability to are acting on behalf of the federal government, which we think is particularly wrong.’