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Interviewing Public Personalities

Research in the social sciences often involves individual interviews of public personalities. These are individuals who are interviewed because of the roles they play or positions they hold in government, public or private organizations, the media, the arts, public campaigns, or even public demonstrations. Such research should recognize two particular dimensions:

Research on public policy can often be critical of organizations or individuals who are interviewed. Such research entails, at times, that researchers might not fully share with public personalities the use of interview material or the full purpose of the study. Researchers should weigh the necessity of deception against the potential harm to interviewees. They should be particularly careful to avoid harming individuals beyond their public roles.

In preparing protocols, researchers should reflect on the general principles of the TCPS and how they can best be implemented in the context of interviewing public personalities. Specifically, they should consider:

Informed consent: How and when informed consent may be obtained should take into account the potential risks to the individuals interviewed and the degree of the public nature of their positions. The less that individuals’ positions involve a public or representative role, or the less they are familiar with interviews and voicing their positions publicly, the more researchers should seek to obtain written informed consent and clarify confidentiality processes. It may be acceptable to develop a protocol with a minimal requirement for consent and guarantees of confidentiality when interviewing politicians, heads of organizations, public relations officers of corporations, journalists, or academics, who would be used to interviews and would be most likely to know how to protect themselves or their organizations. Such assumptions would be less true for members of organizations who play less of a public role and may never be called upon to represent their organization.

The most detailed consent scripts or letters should contain information about the nature of the research, the researcher’s identity, the participant’s role, how (or if) confidentiality will be maintained, the right to terminate the interview at any given time, use of audio-recording and risks and benefits of the research. It may not be appropriate, feasible, or necessary to include all of the above requirements to obtain informed consent from public personalities for interviews. Researchers should justify the level of detail required for consent in relation to the context of their research, if they must exclude some of the above requirements.

Privacy and confidentiality: Degrees of confidentiality may vary, from complete anonymity of the interviewee and no direct quotes; permission to use some quotes while keeping the identity anonymous; permission to identify the individual in publications and to use direct quotes. The less individuals are used to interviews or to playing a public role, the more researchers should ensure that permission has been adequately obtained to publish interview materials, share them with other researchers or other people, or identify the individuals. Protocols should be clear about the ways to guarantee that the interviewee has fully consented to the publication of her/his name or use of direct quotes.

Researchers should provide more guarantees of confidentiality and a more detailed consent process when planning interviews with public personalities who may expose themselves to potential retribution from their superiors or governmental authorities. In authoritarian contexts, or under conditions of political instability, the personal risk to public personalities can be much higher than in democratic contexts. Researchers should take additional precautions to ensure that informed consent is obtained and confidentiality requirements are met. In these cases, researchers may wish to include a consent process in their protocols that more explicitly addresses the means by which consent will be obtained to quote individuals or publish their names. In cases where the interview can cause a very high personal risk to public personalities, the researcher should justify the importance of conducting these interviews for the success of the research project.

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