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The ethics of Eyewitness

Updated Friday, 9th April 2010

Dr Graham Pike, one of the contributors of the Eyewitness programmes talks us through the planning and ethical considerations that went into the production.

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Graham Pike: If you’ve already seen the episodes of Eyewitness, you’ll notice that the staged crime that the witnesses were exposed to were quite exciting. In fact they were quite violent too. One of them was a murder and one was an armed robbery. Elsewhere on this website is the opportunity for you to see how good a witness you might be, and that involves seeing a staged crime.

The first thing you might notice about the staged crime is it’s very different to the ones that were in Eyewitness. It’s much more benign, there’s no violence involved, it’s nothing like as exciting. The reason for this is that when we’re conducting research, or indeed when we’re putting things on the web, as a university we have to adhere very strictly to certain ethical guidelines.

For a start, we can’t be showing things to people that might cause them undue stress or anxiety. It’s also very important that we get informed consent from anyone who’s going to participate in research, even if it’s on the web.

Informed consent means really that I have to explain as much as I possibly can about what’s going to happen to the participant. So when I’m conducting eyewitness identification research, for instance, I always tell the participants that they’re going to see a staged crime and what they’ll be required to do afterwards.

That is I give them as much information about the experiment as possible so that they can make up their mind whether they want to participate. I also make clear to them at any point they can just walk away, that if for whatever reason, and they don’t have to explain that reason, if they want to stop they can just stop.

Now, when it comes to making the staged crimes on Eyewitness it might appear, when you look at the episodes, as though these crimes were just, just happened to the people, that they didn’t undergo a similar situation to a participant in the experiment. However, a great deal of time indeed was spent with those contributors, with the witnesses behind the scenes.

So for a start, the BBC made very clear to them that they were going to be taking part in various memory experiments and that it was quite possible they were going to see things that might be quite unpleasant, that might cause them some stress and anxiety, and they were given the opportunity to not participate and they were given as much information as possible about what was going to happen to them so that they could give their informed consent.

They were also checked over by GPs and clinical psychologists and there were psychologists standing by to make sure that they were okay, that they didn’t experience any undue stress when they were participating.

So a great deal of effort went on behind the scenes on Eyewitness to make sure that the contributors, the witnesses were okay, that they were okay to take part. However, it was still the case that the staged crimes that were shown to the witnesses in Eyewitness were very, very much more realistic than the ones that tend to be used in eyewitness research.

Like I was saying, we can’t use violence in the staged crimes we use. We certainly don’t have the budget to get actors in, and we certainly don’t have the opportunity to use firearms. That means, of course, very often in research the experience of the participant is very, very different to the experience of a real witness.

So the Eyewitness programmes were an invaluable opportunity in that they actually exposed the contributors to a very similar experience or an experience as similar as possible to a real live witness, so not only do they see a very realistic re-enactment of a crime but, of course, they were then taken to a real police station and took part in a real police investigation, that was real police officers interviewing them just like they would a real witness.

So a great deal of effort did go into Eyewitness behind the scenes to make sure that the programme was conducted ethically. But it also does represent a very invaluable opportunity to study what people go through when they see a real crime.






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