Molly drug user — an ethical issue
You never know when an ethical issue will confront you.
This week, as I finished work with students in my advanced editing class — on a semester-long, online project about the Molly drug — it happened.
The issue arose with a video, “Molly — a Student User,” that was produced by two of the students, Shawn Arrajj and Andrew Petrie. They had contacted one of the Syracuse University students who had filled out a nonscientific survey for the “All about Molly” project. The student had provided her email address on the survey and had indicated that she would be interested in talking further about her experiences with the Molly drug.
For the video interview, the student had agreed to be shown, to be identified and to be named. However, after watching the finished video and hearing the student’s story, the “All about Molly” team decided to withhold her identity.
First, a bit of background. From the start of this project, it was important to us to get real people, and we had decided we would do that without anonymous sources. We wanted our project to be believable. We were able to accomplish that, including with the video. However, we also are aware that sometimes people who are interviewed do not realize the ramifications of being identified online — where a simple Google search will find them — especially when they are discussing sensitive issues.
That was the case with this student’s story. In addition, Shawn and Andrew shared some questions the student had when they had finished their interview: “Will I be the only one (on video)?” and “Will DPS (the university’s Department of Public Safety) come after me?” These questions led us to believe that the student was not entirely comfortable. And, indeed, when she had been interviewed, we had expected there would be at least two other students on video, which is what Shawn and Andrew truthfully told her. But those two interviews ultimately fell through and were not conducted.
So, we held a meeting that included the five “All about Molly” team members, two faculty facilitators and myself. (Steve Davis was one of the facilitators.) The questions raised:
- Does the student understand that everyone will know she has used drugs, including prospective employers?
- Does the student realize that the university has a Code of Conduct?
- Does it matter that the student is a freshman compared with a senior, for example, who might be more aware of the first two questions?
- Do we have an obligation to let the student know that she is, indeed, the only one on video?
- Should the student’s comfort level at the end of her interview be considered in our decision?
- Do we owe it to our readers and viewers of the “All about Molly” site to disclose the student’s identity? Will her story stand up on its own?
After thorough discussion, we all agreed that we would feel more comfortable not identifying the student. By using the video but blurring her image, we felt we were being true to our mission that the project be believable. As journalists, we all understand and respect the credo to “do no harm.” In this case, we believe the student’s story stands up on its own merit, and that, indeed, we are doing no harm.