Ethics for Psychologists: Giving Professional Commentary on Public Figures

By Pauline Wallin, Ph.D.
July 26, 2016

Ethics for Psychologists: Giving Professional Commentary on Public FiguresSuppose a news reporter asks you to comment on a recent drunken shoplifting spree involving a high-profile celebrity. Let’s call him Mr. Personality.

As a psychologist, you can offer an educated, scientific perspective. In addition, being quoted in the media boosts your credibility as an expert.

You are aware that in order to stay ethical, it’s best to make general statements pertaining to what you know from psychological research, rather than to offer a professional opinion about an individual whom you’ve never met.

But what about public figures, such as politicians, entertainers and sports professionals? They typically welcome media attention and many even seek it out in the midst of a scandal. There is usually a long “paper trail” of data about their lives – recorded interviews, public statements and behavior, as well as commentary by other people.

When the media report on and speculate about public figures without their explicit permission, courts have generally sided with the reporters, on the basis of free speech laws. That is, public figures are assumed to have less right to privacy than private citizens.

Thus, there seems to be little legal barrier when you, as a psychologist, comment on celebrities, based on information freely available online.

However, our APA Ethics Code requires that you adhere to certain professional standards and guidelines:

These include Sections 5.04 and 2.04, which require that your statements are based on scientific knowledge and your own expertise and are consistent with other aspects of the Ethics Code – especially Sections 9.01b and General Principle A, which say that you should not offer a professional opinion about someone whom you have not examined and should not make any statement that might undermine the welfare of the person in question.

So, what can you say about Mr. Personality and his drunken shoplifting spree and still remain ethical? Here’s an example:

“Although I haven’t met Mr. Personality, there are a few possible reasons why people shoplift when they can well afford to purchase the items. These include….”

One more important factor to consider when commenting on public figures: the source of the facts. Were they gleaned from a police report? From a blog? From a statement by Mr. Personality’s ex-lover?

No matter how insightful your interpretation, if it’s based on gossip and other secondary sources, you are not serving the public well.

Also, your professional comments based on misinformation could potentially cause harm to Mr. Personality – 15 minutes of fame for you; 15 years of shame for Mr. Personality.

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Pauline Wallin, Ph.D., is co-founder of The Practice Institute, LLC, and past-president of APA Division 46 (Media Psychology & Technology). She is in private practice in Camp Hill, Pa., and is frequently called by media for psychological commentary on newsworthy events and people. She may be reached at

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