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Julian Assange's Vision of a ‘Scientific Journalism’

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, June 2 2010

The New Yorkers' Raffi Khatchadourian profiles Julian Assange, the man behind the online clearinghouse and media movement that is Wikileaks.org. Assange's is a life that defies summation, so go read Khatchadourian's full piece to find out how exactly one becomes a global information liberator with no permanent address.

By Assange's own admission, he and his band of allies (some of whom are known by only an single initial, even to Assange) are making it up as they go along. Is this journalism? Activism? Does anyone care? It's possible to draw a line between the "Collateral Murder" videotapes of an Apache helicopter attack in Iraq, upon which Wikileaks has largely made its reputation, and what's happening right now with the battle to define the recent incident between Israeli forces and activists on a Gaza relief ship. Again, Assange is commitedly experimental in figuring out just what sort of role Wikileaks will play in the world in the future; Khatchadourian notes that he and his associates have tried selling off email caches to fund what they do, and Wikileaks is in the running for a grant that would set up a sort of Swiss banking system for leaked documents. Khatchadourian notes that Assange embraces a "nerd box" model of journalism, but with a twist -- be transparent with the public about the raw materials you're working with, and you're given license to spin the news how you see fit. Here's more on the idea:

Assange told me, “I want to set up a new standard: ‘scientific journalism.’ If you publish a paper on DNA, you are required, by all the good biological journals, to submit the data that has informed your research—the idea being that people will replicate it, check it, verify it. So this is something that needs to be done for journalism as well. There is an immediate power imbalance, in that readers are unable to verify what they are being told, and that leads to abuse.” Because Assange publishes his source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative. In the case of Project B, Assange wanted to edit the raw footage into a short film as a vehicle for commentary. For a while, he thought about calling the film “Permission to Engage,” but ultimately decided on something more forceful: “Collateral Murder.”

Like the focus in recent years in pushing out raw government data, Assange's "scientific journalism" is an approach that asks more from the consuming public than has been asked of it in the recent past. A prediction: we're right on the cusp of a more energetic debate about whether that's really a fruitful path to go down, in the government realm -- see, for example, danah boyd's recent stuff on how "transparency isn't enough), in the journalism realm, in the activism realm, and where they all overlap. Get a jump on the debate by reading Khatchadourian's full profile of Assange here.

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