CC-licensed image, courtesy of Steve Rhodes, via Flickr

This post is an amalgam of several emails I sent to a private journalism-related listserv.  I’ve got a project brewing in the ol’ noggin relating to journalism, objectivity, and transparency.  I figured I’d post this publicly, in the hopes of soliciting more opinions, so please feel free to post in the comments.

So, one of my pet peeves about the universe of journalism is the fact that most (primarily non-journalist) folks, and particularly those on the conservative end of the political spectrum, insist that journalists must be “objective” in their reporting.

This notion is, of course, under constant debate, but it has recently been brought to the fore by several cases, including Juan Williams, Keith Olberman, Helen Thomas, and Octavia Nasr, who was fired over a mere tweet which was seen by some folks as partisan.

See also this article on TechCrunch for some insight:
http://techcrunch.com/2010/07/08/we-need-more-opinions-in-news-not-less/

Frankly, I don’t believe that it’s possible for such a thing as genuinely objective reporting to exist in the real world. We might aspire to write just the facts, we might try our best to present every side of an argument without favoring one or the other, but ultimately, there’s no such thing as a human with no bias, and therefore by logical necessity, no reporting without bias.

Furthermore, because of the epistemological impossibility of “objective” reporting, I’m personally inclined to treat those who base their journalistic reputation on objectivity as suspect, because they either A) haven’t considered the philosophical consequences of their claim or B) they don’t believe that I’ve thought about it deeply enough to see their claims are bogus, or perhaps worst of all C) they genuinely DO believe that they are being more objective than anyone else, which is a level of self-delusion I’m not prepared to accept.

The primary benefit that a professional journalist brings to the table (in my opinion) is the impetus towards investigation and a willingness to discuss multiple points of view in their stories.  Take for example Dave Weigel, who was fired from the WaPo for comments he made on a private listserv. Even though he didn’t personally hold the same beliefs as the folks he was reporting on, nobody was complaining about the content of his stories.  He was reporting on a point of view that differed from his own, and apparently doing it well enough to satisfy the conservatives of the world (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on this point).  Ultimately, he was undone by expressing his personal opinions in a private forum.

Perhaps it is that the real advantage of professional journalism over “citizen journalism” is in fact that it requires a certain amount of exposure to ideas which may not completely cohere with your intellectual predisposition?  Maybe what the NYT, Dallas Morning News, and Chicago Tribune offer is the opportunity to encounter a bit of cognitive dissonance from time to time.  It may not be comfortable, but that just means you’re thinking about it.

I thought Mathew Ingram presented it well in this article on GigaOm :

David Weinberger, a former fellow with the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has also argued that “transparency is the new objectivity,” and that readers can now make up their own minds about whether journalists are credible or not by looking at the sources of the news they are reporting, rather than relying on the notion of objectivity. “Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases,” he said in a blog post last year. “Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.” Transparency is also much more effective online because journalists can link to supporting evidence for their arguments, Weinberger said, instead of just relying on the principle of objectivity to buttress their opinions. “Objectivity,” he wrote, “is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links.”

Jay Rosen has taken to referring to the mythical objectivity which some journalists invoke as the “view from nowhere”, a term apparently coined by Thomas Nagel, and he’s got a lot of opinions which I find myself agreeing with on the subject.

Any thoughts from the noosphere on the subject?  Is transparency the new objectivity?  I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.

MIT Professor Angela Belcher and the prototype battery she and her team created using a genetically engineered virus.  Photo credit: Donna Coveney, courtesy of MIT

MIT Professor Angela Belcher and the prototype battery she and her team created using a genetically engineered virus. Photo credit: Donna Coveney, courtesy of MIT

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have successfully demonstrated a technique for fabricating a better battery using a genetically engineered virus.

They announced their technique for the battery earlier this month, maintaining that it allows them to use a much wider variety of materials for potentially higher-capacity, rechargeable batteries.

The interdisciplinary team of MIT scientists combined research in biology, chemistry, engineering and advanced nanotechnology to fabricate the battery.

Dr. Chad Mirkin, professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, said he is glad to see demonstrations of practical applications of nanotechnology. This represents one of the latest applications of the ongoing advances in nanotechnology using genetically modified viruses.

“There are many examples of using genetically engineered viruses to manufacture nanomaterials,” Mirkin said. “It’s a merger of molecular biology and material science.” He said that research in this area has been almost exclusively focused on batteries.

Applications of this type of virus battery may one day include powering personal electronics and even electric vehicles. The manufacturing process requires no organic solvents and can occur at and below room temperature. The process is described as “environmentally benign,” because it requires fewer toxic components, according to MIT.

To manufacture the battery, the researchers used a genetically modified strain of the common M13 bacteriophage, a virus that consumes bacteria but which is harmless to humans. By altering the virus’s DNA, the researchers were able to fabricate a battery cathode.

To do so, they altered the viruses to bond with iron phosphate on one end of their structure, and then to attach themselves to single-walled carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are used by scientists as a kind of super-small scaffolding to build nano-scale structures, and for their electric properties.

A small change in the virus’s DNA produced an affinity for molecules of iron phosphate, and these molecules were built up by the virus into a structure known as nanowires. The researchers then experimented with ways of combining the nanowires with carbon nanotubes, which are excellent conductors of electricity.

They applied the idea of modifying the virus a second time to produce an affinity for bonding with carbon nanotubes. When the researchers incubated the viral iron phosphate nanowires in a suspension of carbon nanotubes, the viruses were drawn to the nanotubes, and they produced a highly conductive network in which electrons “percolate” through the carbon nanotubes on their way to the iron phosphate.

The researchers used this network as the cathode portion of their battery, and packaged the battery in a standard coin shape. The prototype was used in a simple circuit to light a green LED, and was demonstrated last month at a White House press briefing by Susan Hockfield, president of MIT.

The prototype maintained power after being charged and discharged at least 100 times in lab tests. While this falls short of current-generation lithium ion batteries, MIT Professor Angela Belcher stated she expects to improve  performance with further research. Belcher, lead researcher for the battery project, is an expert in the fields of material science, engineering and biological engineering.

“We expect them to be able to go much longer,” said Belcher in a press release.

Note: This article was first published on the Medill Reports site, on 4/9/2009.  Reprinted here for my own archival purposes.

[flashvideo file=”flash_video/UnemploymentSeminar.flv” /]

This is the first video that I’ve turned in for Northwestern that hasn’t been completely terrible.  It’s a story about a group in Chicago that provides support services for the unemployed to assist in their job search called the Career Transitions Center.