Writer and comedian John Knefel reaches for his glasses as police pull him away during an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York City yesterday. This really great photo was taken by Jessica Lehrman in the lobby of Winter Garden, a building owned by Brookfield Property, the same company that owns Zuccotti Park. To get a different view on the same scene, check out a video that someone else was filming at the same time. You can see Knefel falling down around 6:30.
The photo and video bring up something interesting. Knefel is a writer and comedian, one of the many people documenting OWS from the inside while trying to navigate the very grey boundaries of journalist and participant in the age of Internet journalism. Personally, I think this conflict is pretty interesting. If I can get all "journalism ethics class" for a minute here, I think OWS is drawing attention to the already existing need for new definitions of who constitutes "media" and who doesn't. Why is this more confusing than you might thing? Let me use Knefel as an example.
Knefel doesn't work for a major media outlet. But he's also not just some random bystander. He's got a political podcast with new episodes three times a week. Do we only call someone a journalist if they have enough page views? Do they have to have a journalism degree? What's the line?
Knefel is a biased source of information. But so are a lot of mainstream commentators. We'd call someone from Fox News a journalist. We'd call someone from Reason magazine a journalist. We'd call somebody from Mother Jones a journalist. Having a clear political angle to your coverage doesn't make you not a journalist. Except when it does. So what are the actual criteria?
Knefel didn't have a press pass. But, as Xeni has pointed out, the press pass system in New York is incredibly convoluted and contradictory. So what if you can't get one? Does that mean you aren't a journalist? This is particularly problematic given the fact that the rules seem to be set up to favor long-standing publications with lots of resources that mostly just cover New York City. How does that fit into a globalized world? Why punish media entrepreneurship?
We live in an age where publishing is easy and the tools to do it are available to a much wider swatch of people. But our standards and rules for who gets protection as a member of the press are based on a paradigm where publishing wasn't easy and only a limited number of people could do it. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that not everybody who uses the Internet is a journalist, because being a journalist comes with responsibilities not just protections. I'm pretty sure my Dad doesn't want to hold his Facebook to the same standard that I use when writing here.
I don't know the answer to these questions. But I know we need to have this conversation. Occupy Wall Street just shows us what can happen when we keep applying old rules to a new world.
Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in America, began life on August 28, 1845 as a 4-page, black and white newsletter. There were only a couple of illustrations. The cover model was one of the vastly improved railroad cars of the age, which could seat 60-80 passengers, "run with a steadiness hardly equalled by a steamboat," and (perhaps best of all) was capable of "flying at the rate of 30 to 40 miles per hour."
In this early incarnation, Scientific American was published weekly—"Every Thursday Morning" in New York and Philadelphia, promised a sidebar. Articles were packed together in that great "NO WHITESPACE!" style common to 19th-century newspapers. Besides that brief on modern train cars, the front page featured curated clippings from other newspapers and publications, ranging from an explanation of where the sound of thunder comes from, to a report from the "village of Moulton" about a levitating haystack.
There was poetry. There was a column all about new inventions—which includes, if I'm reading correctly, an announcement about the invention of the centrifuge. There was a long list of recently issued patents. There were descriptions of basic scientific principles and some gadget-hound fawning over Morse's telegraph.
If that makes good ol' Sci Am sound frightfully blog-like ... well, yes. That's sort of an interesting point, isn't it? Meet the New Media, same as the Old Media.
During the month of November, you can acquaint yourself better with media and scientific history by browsing through online archives of Scientific American issues from 1849 to 1909. They're free to access, for this month only.
In early 2011, Felisa Wolfe-Simon published a scientific paper purporting to show evidence that bacteria from California's Mono Lake could, if pressed, live without the essential element phosphorous, and use arsenic, instead.
The story was wildly misconstrued in the press. (No, nobody ever found alien life happening naturally in Lake Mono.) And the evidence and methodology of Wolfe-Simon's research was roundly trounced, not just in academic journals, but also in blogs.
And that's all left Wolfe-Simon in a very weird position. She's certainly not the first scientist to publish a high-profile paper that other researchers tore to shreds. But, because the "arsenic life" story was so high-profile, she's now worried her career might be over. Is that fair? In Popular Science, Tom Clynes presents a nuanced profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon that doesn't really answer that question definitively. Frankly, there probably isn't a really clear black/white answer out there. But Clynes does do a really good job of introducing us to Wolfe-Simon as a person, and her story exposes flaws in the peer-review process and the traditional avenues of scientific debate, indicts the media and PR professionals for creating the very sensational story that led to such a harsh response, and shows what can happen when a scientist is unprepared to deal with the public presentation of their own work.
In other words, this story is about lots of people making mistakes, including, but not limited to, Felisa Wolfe-Simon.
In June, Science reported that Wolfe-Simon had left Oremland’s USGS laboratory to look for a location with better molecular and genetic research facilities. “Actually,” Wolfe-Simon says, “I didn’t leave out of choice. Ron basically evicted me from the group. It was a political decision on his part that I don’t understand, and I didn’t see it coming.” Although she received a NASA fellowship in 2010 that provides support through 2013, she is still seeking a new home for her work.
I find it hard not to feel sympathy for her. In a matter of weeks she was catapulted to fame, then singled out and assaulted with professional and personal criticism, some of which resulted from missteps beyond her control. Wolfe-Simon is an early-career researcher in a field dominated by older men. Few scientists, no matter how established, would have the skills to navigate the situation that she found herself in. What made the level of criticism so extraordinary is that the paper, in itself, is not so flawed that it should not have been published. The argument was compelling, the conclusions were measured, the data was thorough, and the paper made it through the same peer-review process as other articles in Science.
It will take a few years to better answer the questions surrounding GFAJ-1. In the meantime, Benner—who says he would be “more than astonished” if arsenic replaces phosphorus in any genetically relevant molecule in GFAJ-1—says Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis is ultimately useful if it motivates people to look in new places and ask bigger questions.
Wolfe-Simon says the paper’s publicity attracted new collaborators who she wouldn’t have otherwise met, some of whom are already analyzing GFAJ-1. And her fame has played out in surprising ways. Recently, her husband, Jonathan, an engineer, was speaking with a colleague who asked if he happened to be married to Felisa Wolfe-Simon. When he said yes, the colleague said, “My seven-year-old daughter dressed up as Felisa for her school’s science day!” The girl wore a sun hat, with her pants rolled up and flip-flops on her feet, dressed for a day wading the waters of Mono Lake in search of bacteria.
- Meanwhile, scientists are still debating arsenic-based life
- Weird life found on Earth—kind of, maybe
- Probiotics and "Science by Product Release"
- ETs on Earth?
- Microbiologist turns a skeptical eye on Mono Lake arsenic eaters
- Meet Science: What is "peer review"?
- Meet Science: What is "peer review"?
- Science and press conferences: Seeing our own shadow
Xeni has been posting here about Google+'s refusal to allow people to set up an account under invented (rather than legal) names. She's been focusing on how this relates to Internet culture, in general, and what it means for Google+ and the people who hoped it might be a better place to be social than Facebook.
I'd like to talk very briefly about what it means for scientists. As a science journalist, I'm kind of a middle person, taking information from scientists and presenting it to the public. Increasingly, though, scientists have found ways to take part in that conversation more directly—something that I think is good for scientists, good for the public, and good for science journalists. And blogging, often pseudonymous blogging, is a big part of that.
Why pseudonymous? That's an interesting question, and it's one that the scientist-bloggers themselves have been answering a lot lately, not only because of the G+ Nymwars, but also because of what's happening at Science Blogs. This blogging network, home to quite a few scientist-bloggers, was recently bought by National Geographic, which decided that bloggers could no longer blog under the pseudonyms they'd been using for years.
Personally, I think there are benefits and detriments to anonymity on the Internet, but there's a big difference between being anonymous and having a pseudonym. I may not know who DrugMonkey is in real life, but I know who DrugMonkey is and I know that he has to be as responsible for everything he writes under that name as I am responsible for what I write as Maggie Koerth-Baker. The difference is that writing is my profession. It's not his. Instead, he has to balance the needs of a profession in laboratory science with the needs of a writing hobby. For people who do that, there are a lot of reasons why pseudonyms make sense. For example:
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