Federal rule change frees student journalists from Institutional Review Board requirements

Just before their exodus, joint departments of the Obama administration passed a rule clarifying the existing Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects. The rule, which was finalized on January 19, explicitly states that collegiate Institutional Review Boards do not have jurisdiction over journalistic practices.

It states that “scholarly and journalistic activities, including the collection and use of information, that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected” are not deemed to be research under the purview of IRBs .

Authorship of the rule is attributed to 15 departments and agencies in addition to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The original policy, which was promulgated in 1991, sought to require approval by campus oversight committees in cases where college students were performing research related to human behavior.

IRBs were an earnest response to instances of unethical or dangerous research practices, primarily in medical and psychology fields. They serve a valid purpose, requiring professionals to examine methodology in research to ensure that human subjects are not abused.

While the policy has popularly been viewed in this stricter scientific context, referring to the subjects of “human experimentation,” some institutions have zealously applied the standard to student journalism in particularly controversial cases.

One such case regarded the dissemination of a sexual habits survey via the university email server by the Sooner Yearbook at the University of Oklahoma in 2010.

Lori Brooks, who was the staff adviser of the yearbook at the time but has since left the university, said IRB was one of many standards “thrown at the wall” by the administration in opposition to the survey and its corresponding story in the yearbook.

“There was a huge outcry from students and faculty and community members,” Brooks said. “They were unhappy it was even in their inboxes. Oklahoma is a very closed and conservative state. Just the idea of a sex survey was abhorrent to them.”

Since the story and survey hadn’t been vetted by an IRB and because the email was sent from Brooks’ account (only university staff had access to email the entire database), she was immediately caught up in a bureaucratic mess with the division of Student Affairs.

Brooks used the experience as an educational opportunity for her students, giving them full autonomy over writing and publishing decisions.

Nicole Hill, who was editor-in-chief of Sooner at the time and has since interned with the Student Press Law Center and now works for a college in Texas, said the experience far exceeded her expectations.

“That whole time was so overwhelming,” Hill said. “When you sign up to be the editor-in-chief of your college yearbook, you don’t expect to be thrown into the middle of a campus-wide controversy.”

Hill said that she and fellow editors reviewed the IRB process and realized that the administration’s suggestion that they seek approval for their “research” was a thinly veiled imposition of a requirement they could not meet.

“It became clear from the IRB requirements and from other actions by the administration that they just didn’t want us to do the story,” she said.

In the end, the students chose not to publish the story, likely due to a “very direct” threat to both the yearbook’s funding and Brooks’ job.

Hill said, “I called all the editors into one room and I said, ‘unless this is a unanimous yes, we’re not going to go forward with it,’ because some of the students were beginning to perceive individual threats.”

While Brooks said she admired her students’ fervor to maintain the opportunity and experience of a yearbook for future students, she said she regrets not encouraging them more to publish it.

“It’s the worst professional decision I ever made — though it wasn’t really my decision it was the students’ — not pressing harder and publishing to advocate for our First Amendment right,” Brooks said.

Hill said with hindsight, the editorial staff probably would have stood their ground.

“I still stand by the content. People contacted me personally to say how important it was that we were talking about this issue,” Hill said.

Another, more recent case at Indiana University of Pennsylvania had a happier outcome.

Since the fall of 2015, undergraduate students in professor David Loomis’ News Reporting class have been trying to collect information about labor contracts of faculty and coaches via surveys. This research, along with surveys regarding time allotted to grade written assignments and hazing within student organizations, some school officials deemed “controversial.”

Many faculty and coaches at Pennsylvania’s public universities were working without contracts, which resulted in a labor strike in fall 2016. Preempting such big news with in-depth watchdog research, is how Loomis said he teaches his students to report, a method that has previously won Keystone Press journalism awards for students at IUP.

Loomis said the conflict spanned over three semesters’ worth of classes and that the administration had “pulled the plug altogether” on his students’ use of their Qualtrics survey tool through the IUP Applied Research Lab without IRB approval in fall of 2016.

However, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Yaw Asamoah recently came out in support of the students’ project and they have been permitted to proceed with their surveys this semester.

Loomis said that the process wasn’t an arduous one and that he did not want to teach his students to “buckle under bureaucrats,” especially since he did not think they were particularly adversarial.

“It’s not so much malice as a misunderstanding of what we do,” Loomis said. “The principle is that the free press should be allowed to present its judgments.”

SPLC staff writer Molly Cooke can be reached by email or (202) 785-5451

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