Building a compass to navigate (mis/dis)information – Scholar Q&A with Laura Lemon

June 11, 2024 • Jonathan McVerry

Laura Lemon

For communication professionals, misinformation and disinformation are serious threats that can have long-lasting implications. Unfortunately, there is a critical gap in applying an ethical framework and a lack of training resources for handling false information. A team of scholars from the University of Alabama is conducting a study to identify ethical standards that will help practitioners prepare and react to the perils of (mis/dis)information. The researchers are two-time Page Center scholar Courtney Boman and first-time Center scholars Laura Lemon and LaTonya Taylor. The project is part of the Page Center’s 2024 research call on ethics training in public relations, journalism, advertising and strategic communication. In this Q&A, Lemon shares the story behind the project, the need for training, and how the concept of “ethics of care” fits into the scholars’ plan.

How did you, your collaborators and the idea for this project come together?

The origin story has two parts. Dr. Boman, who is the leader of this project, and I partnered to develop a conceptual piece prior to this study. It looked at ethics of care, but in an internal environment. We wanted to understand how this philosophy, ethics of care, could impact internal audiences specifically when it comes to employee engagement. So, we developed a framework that could help internal audiences have more meaningful work experiences. We then developed another study that was funded by PRSA, which specifically looked at (mis/dis)information. We did interviews with PRSA members to better understand how they conceptualize and navigate situations that involve (mis/dis)information. We wanted to know what tools are available and what tools they wish they had.

And that set the stage for your Page Center project?

Yes. We walked away from that study feeling like practitioners and strategic communication professionals do not have the resources to navigate this intricate phenomenon that we are experiencing right now. We also felt that because the industry guidelines were lacking, this meant that a lot of folks rely on their own personal ethics to navigate these situations. That can sometimes be nebulous, unclear, and inconsistent. We concluded that this work needs to be continued. When we saw the Page Center call come out about ethics training, we thought it was a really great fit for the things that we've been doing to extend our work in ethics of care.

Can you share how your definition of ethics of care fits into a project like this one?

People are more familiar with character-based ethics, and ethics of care is rooted in relationships. It recognizes the complexity of relationships, and that oftentimes is what underpins (mis/dis)information. That’s because professionals are having to navigate conflicting situations with a variety of stakeholders and target audiences. Ethics of care ensures that they can uphold the responsibility to not only the organization, but everyone involved. So, it's ongoing. It's not something that has a beginning and an end. In terms of what this looks like for (mis/dis)information, we don’t know yet—that’s the purpose of this project.

What are some consequences if (mis/dis)information go unaddressed?

One thing that's important to point out is that the primary difference between the two is intent. Both of them spread falsehoods, but people intentionally share disinformation. The ramifications for some organizations could become major crises. Disinformation can snowball causing reputation loss, impacts on stakeholder groups and, depending on the information shared, it can even threaten public safety. There are ramifications too in terms of the future. Young professionals who are graduating into the workforce, if it’s not addressed, are going to have an uphill battle because of the way that this information phenomenon is positioning the industry.

Can you expand on how a company, or the industry, could use the framework you build?

Ultimately (mis/dis)information is a complex situation that most professionals are dealing with in some capacity.  We need a code of ethics to help us navigate it. Our project will begin with focus groups. I really want to see maximum variation in terms of perspectives from people who participate – yes, communication professionals, but we’d love in-house, agency, non-profits, small business entrepreneurs, freelancers, recent grads, senior professors and diversity in demographics. We're going to talk about how they conceptualize and define (mis/dis)information. What are the gaps? How can ethics of care help? And then, we’ll also talk about training. What training is available? What would they like to see? Would they actually participate?

What’s next after the focus groups?

From there, we're going to sample and survey a significant portion of strategic communication professionals. We will confirm or be able to generalize some of those insights from the focus groups. And then the third phase is to then go back to some of the focus group participants to confirm all of this. Some of the same questions – Would you participate in this training? Would it be useful? I think it is going to give us some really good insights, so we are confident in putting out a code of ethics that helps professionals navigate (mis/dis)information.

What is the Page Center’s role in helping you achieve your research goals?

First of all, the support is incredible. We're able to fund a graduate student as our third member of our team, LaTonya Taylor, who is an incredible student. We can buy a quality panel to have quality survey data. Also, access to the Page Center’s advisory board and being able to present our work to its members can open opportunities for building connections and recruiting people to the study. I am really looking forward to making those connections and being a part of this community. When you look at the advisory board and the Page Center scholars, they are top folks in our field. So, for me, a first-time scholar, I am honored to be part of this group.