Ethics for Psychologists: Ethical Considerations for Media Presentations

By Deborah Partington, Psy.D.
November 11, 2015 - Last updated: January 18, 2016

Talk ShowSeveral times over the past year, psychologists have asked me, “What do I need to know to host a radio program?” My advice is to approach use of media with circumspection rather than simply dismiss it as a liability.

The APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002) Standard 504 Media Presentations states: When psychologists provide public advice or comment via print, Internet or other electronic transmission, they take precautions to ensure that statements (1) are based on their professional knowledge, training or experience in accord with appropriate psychological literature and practice; (2) are otherwise consistent with this Ethics Code; and (3) do not indicate that a professional relationship has been established with the recipient.

Outlined here are a few considerations to keep in mind to minimize the possibility of committing an ethical faux pas when using the media for professional purposes. Note: though this article focuses on radio and television, the same considerations apply to Internet-based media as well.

The first consideration is to keep it professional. Given the nature of our profession, it is quite likely that your presentation, even an informal 30-second interview, concerns itself with an emotionally charged topic. Let’s say your specialty is working with adolescents. A local high school student has committed suicide following the posting of a photograph of him that has gone viral on YouTube.

You are asked in a TV interview to comment on teenage suicide and the dangers of social media. Are your comments rife with personal opinion and emotional reactions rather than research? You may want to ask yourself, could I defend my televised comments to my peers?
Another consideration is to plan ahead. If you are giving a talk on some aspect of your work as a psychologist it is likely you will draw from your experiences with your clients. Lack of planning may lead to inadvertent breaches of confidentiality.

Ethics Standard 4.07 states: Psychologists do not disclose in their writing, lectures or other public media, confidential, personally identifiable information concerning their clients/patients, students, research participants, organizational clients or other recipients of their services that they obtained during the course of their work, unless (1) they take reasonable steps to disguise the person or organization, (2) the person or organization has consented in writing, or (3) there is legal authorization for doing so.
Simply changing a name may not be enough to preserve confidentiality.

Discuss with your clients what information you plan to use and have them sign a release granting you permission to include their experiences in your talk. If you are a guest on a program, inform the host or interviewer before the program begins what is off limits for discussion.

A third consideration is to clarify the purpose of the program. It may be clear in your mind that you are providing information, education, even opinions – not treatment or consultation. Your audience may not see the distinction. A mother of a depressed son may call you after listening to your interview. She has been told her son needs medication. She hesitates because she feels antidepressants are harmful and wants to know if this is true.

Before giving her your informed opinion, consider possible consequences. You are responding as a psychologist. She is not your client; no informed consent has been signed. To give advice or consultation suggests you are a treatment provider. Ethical Standard 504 states that we should not act as though a professional relationship has been established.

You may think this is a moot point if you do not accept calls; however, interested viewers may contact you anyway after the program. Have a clear policy about answering questions from your audience. Consider publishing or announcing a disclaimer before and after your program that states the program is for informational purposes only and that you are unable to offer advice or respond to individual questions through emails/texts/phone calls, and so on. Encourage viewers to consult their health care provider or contact your office to schedule an appointment.

These are suggestions that will help prevent ethical mishaps. If you plan to use the media as an integral part of your practice, it is to your advantage to obtain legal consultation and contact your liability insurance carrier to confirm that you are covered for specific media programming.


Deborah Partington, Psy.D., is chair of the Ethics Committee of the Arizona Psychological Association. Her email is:
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