Fifty shades of media ethics

The review board will see you now.

Ahh research ethics, the bottom line is, if your research involves other people, you’re going to need an ethics clearance.

But what if your main participants are animals? We hear about issues of informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, but does an animal subject need informed consent?

Let’s take two steps back.

1. How do you define something that doesn’t have a universal definition?

Ethics are widely agreed moral principles about what is right and wrong in society. However ethics are a very grey area; they are subjective and rely heavily on guidelines, regulation and self-implementation.

2. Why do we need them?

Ethics serve in minimising the risk of legal action, and the protection of researcher reputation (Weerakkody, 2008) and more importantly the protection of research participants.

So Meet Nim

Nim was a chimpanzee raised like a human and taught sign language in an experiment to disprove theories that saw language as an innate and uniquely human trait (Segerdahl, 2012).

Herb Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University, conducted the experiment in the 1970s. But was it a revolutionary study, or a tragic waiting to happen?

The project was criticised for “putting ‘ethics’ on the back-burner because it was just too exciting,” (Brown, 2011) and has consequently raised ethical issues at every stage of research proposed by Weerakkody (2008); design, data collection, analysis, reporting and publication.

Stephanie LaFarge, Terrace’s former psychology graduate, adopted Nim. From the get-go, he was raised as human but was he exploited?

The Nuremberg code (1949) specifies the avoidance of unnecessary physical or psychological trauma to subjects (Weerakkody, 2008). Nim’s life was unnatural, and perhaps was what led to his reluctance to participate. His ‘parents’ passed joints and it was not long before ‘stone’ and ‘smoke’ were added to his vocabulary.


Nim, with his two main researchers and carers. Image from:

He became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers, magazines and chat shows (Brown, 2011). He even became possessive over LaFarge and more aggressive as his natural instincts kicked in.

The project ended much like Weerakkody’s (2008) suggestion for researchers, “to immediately end any project found to be causing harm,” and Nim was returned to a primate research centre.

But did he receive sufficient treatment upon completion? According to Brown (2011) he was left to a caged and solitary existence.

Hartley (2011), psychologist in clinical training, presents a differing view. He identifies a story of humans competing for power over Nim, whilst “anthropomorphically mindreading the chimp’s best interest to suit their own.”

He raises an interesting point regarding power among clients, patients and participants. Does informed consent only make it easier to avoid such abuse of power?

LaFarge reviews the project as a failure of moral will, she took a creature into her home without having any plan for the rest of its life, a plan for ‘doing the right thing.’ (Brown, 2011). Perhaps that was the problem, the design was ill planned from the very beginning.

She also accused Terrace for “ignoring results that didn’t fit into his template.” (Brown, 2011). This is a significant issue in data analysis. As Weerakkody (2008) suggests, it’s important to draw conclusions consistent with your data, not to stretch them to fit your desires.

But is this the result of an imbalanced portrayal? With diminished scientific credibility, Terrace (2011) sets the record straight: Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 6.47.18 pm Segerdahl (2012) agrees, that such negative results present hard scientific evidence. But I can’t help but wonder if the project was even worth it. Could there have been alternative approaches? I want to know what you think.

Here are some comments from the film’s YouTube trailer.

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Brown, Mick. ‘Project Nim: The Chimp Who Was Brought Up Like A Child’. The Telegraph 2011. [Online] Accessed 2 Apr. 2015. Available from:

Hartley, Nick. ‘Project Nim: Chimps, People And Ethics’. The British Psychology Society. N.p., 2011. [Online] Accessed: 2 Apr. 2015. Available from:

Segerdahl, Par. ‘Project Nim: A Tragedy That Was Interpreted As Science?’. The Ethics Blog 2012. [Online] Accesed 2 Apr. 2015. Available from:

Terrace, Herbert. ‘Project Nim: The Untold Story’. Speaking of Research 2011. [Online] Accessed 2 Apr. 2015. Available from:

Weerakkody, N 2008, ‘Research ethics in media and communication’, Research Methods for Media and Communications, Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, Vic., pp73-91.


6 responses to “Fifty shades of media ethics

  1. Really well done piece, and a really nice take on the issue of ethics by thinking outside the box and focussing on Animals! Definately something hard to think about, Reminds me of that situation where a monkey took a photo and now people are argueing over who owns it! Really good use of sources, made it very academic and well informed. I’m glad to read he was taken out of thta lifestyle though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Research and ethics can be very tricky when it comes to animals. I agree, poor Nim never got to live a normal life, but I’m glad there was some attempt to assimilate him with the other Chimps! Thanks for the feedback 🙂


    • Well researched post on a very interesting topic! Based on the ethical standards set out by Weerakkody’s, I tend to agree that the study should have ended- the study definitely didn’t protect the subject. Brown’s reasoning that the project was too exciting just wasn’t a good enough reason to ignore ethics, if you ask me! Great article.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I totally agree! Sure, the project would have been exciting at the time, but the researchers could have definitely approached the project in a more ethical way! Thanks for the feedback 🙂


  2. Awesome blog Roseanne! You’ve raised a really interesting point that I had not thought of before now. I feel as if I would be ok with this study, and any other study involving animals if, and only if, they weren’t being harmed or exploited. But again, this does not answer the question of who is allowed to give consent for the animals being studied. But seriously, good blog, you’re a great writer!!


    • Thanks Lauren Kate! Using animals in research is such a tricky one, it’s also interesting how so many people got worked up about this project when there are so many animals being tested in science all the time! Which raises another question, do animals involved in testing labs get the same ethical considerations with those in philosophy/psychology experiments? Interesting topic, thanks for the feedback! 🙂


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