So what does a psychologist working with media really do and should they?

About twenty years ago I became press officer to the Division of Educational and Child Psychology for the British Psychological Society (BPS). It was at a time when a lot of my colleagues were very sceptical and suspicious of anything to do with press and media. The main fears, as far as I could tell, from talking with other psychologists and from reading correspondence with The Psychologist the BPS’ monthly magazine that reaches tens of thousands of members and interested others, was that of misrepresentation, deliberate falsification and untrained replication of the knowledge base and professionalism of applied psychologists and psychologist academics had trained, studied and worked hard for over many years.

Whilst acknowledging all of these possibilities I didn’t share this largely negative view and when I became Chair of the Division the following year I devoted a lot of time and energy to developing the links between psychology and media. Here are some of my many reasons for my doing this:

  • In my work as an educational psychologist a key principle upon which I base my practice is encapsulated in Kurt Lewin’s familiar equation, B = f (P, S), i.e. behaviour is a function of the person and their situation. I have never doubted that to truly understand and work with children, young people and adults it is never going to be possible to contribute to any change without being cognisant of their worlds as well as my own, in which media plays such an important part.
  • Bringing psychology to society and increasing public understanding of and increasing access to psychology are central aims for my Learned Society, the BPS. Many journalists and non-psychologists draw upon the knowledge base of Psychology but do not have the clinical experience of the ever-changing human world in which to embed and contextualise what they have learnt. There is a danger of communicating and working with personal bias and insufficient perspective. Professional psychologists, particularly applied psychologists in my view, have years of training and work from which to develop an understanding and greater awareness of this and then working in a more objective and informed fashion, supported by the community of psychologists, professional practice supervision and their code of ethics and conduct.
  • On a personal basis, I find working with media and press intellectually stimulating, topical, relevant, varied and meaningful. The media employ many psychology graduates, mainly as researchers at this time, who are generally bright young people using their well-honed research skills to create some interesting questions and perspectives. When asked to contribute, depending on the timescale for the request, I use a variety of methods for responding. I research the question presented, using a blend of ethnographic-style questions and conversations with whomever I can engage at this point, trawling my memory banks of practice materials from past projects and multiple case studies, and I spend some time doing some research of my own.
  • I think that people, adults as well as children and young people who become involved in media productions are safer and better looked after if a professional psychologist is available to consult with members of the production crew, especially those in senior, managerial positions, to conduct risk assessments of potentially vulnerable and under-age participants and to be involved with productions at the planning stages, during filming and post broadcast. Although we live in the age of reality television and social media and some individuals, usually those with a vested commercial interest, genuinely consider privacy is no longer necessary for psychological wellbeing, being exposed to a public audience is a big deal and usually life changing. At this time there is insufficient empirical evidence based on long-term data collection in naturalistic settings to support my view but twenty years of professional practice with numerous individuals and productions bears this out. Relatively recently I contributed to the BPS Media and Ethics Group chaired by Professor John Oates, for example donating some material to the new BPS (2019) ‘Guidance for Producers and Commissioners’.  These guidelines were produced in order to help those commissioning and working with productions, both fictional and factual, to understand what psychology can provide in ensuring the moral and ethical challenges are met.

In the last month I’ve been asked to comment for various newspapers on a range of issues relating to children’s mental health and psychological wellbeing and to become involved in a couple of gritty drama productions using under-age actors and other projects. One of the children for whom I carried out a risk assessment has been cast as a character who, as an adult, commits some of the most atrocious crimes in recorded history. I fed back to the parents afterwards that I considered the young person did not present any particular risks as long as certain on-set arrangements, including my presence, were in place. The parent then asked me what it was exactly that I did and it certainly made me think. Obviously, I am on hand to make suggestions around the most sensitive and child-friendly ways of filming difficult content and also, in the worst case scenario, if someone does become upset there are things I can suggest but it very rarely comes to this as the selection and screening up to this point are rigorous and tend to be successful in casting actors with sufficient resilience and psychological robustness. What I think I do offer, is a physical reminder and presence to everyone involved in a production, complicated as it usually is, that they have to be aware and careful and constantly keep the wellbeing of under-age and vulnerable actors in mind. I am also, as I tell the actors, parents, chaperones and members of the production team that I work with, a resource that can be used to gain reassurance, clarify and solution-find in a psychologically informed way. Increasingly, with the demand and interest in, and need for professional Psychology, it would surely be unethical and morally dubious to not respond.

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