If you ask Seth Lewis, he will tell you that the days of becoming a journalist to avoid math are over.
Lewis, an associate professor at the UO School of Journalism and Communication and its Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media, is an expert in the digital transformation of news and media and focuses his research on the ever-growing relationship between artificial intelligence and journalism.
Lewis’ research interests actually take up two broad areas: journalists’ relationships with audiences and communities, and journalists’ relationships with machines.
With regard to the former, Lewis examines how journalists’ connections with, and understanding of, communities can change when they add to the mix different forms of technology, such as social media or online forums, that may increase dialogue between journalists and their audiences.
More and more, Lewis says, technology is interconnected with journalism, to the point that algorithms and automation can now do some of the things that human journalists once did, including writing news stories on topics based on structured data, such as sports and finance.
“That is a fundamentally different kind of switch because it is putting those technologies in a particular role of communication that we haven’t really imagined quite before,” Lewis said.
While humans made these machines, Lewis still thinks journalists should understand the importance of this change and be able to adjust with it.
What happens when more of our communication becomes entangled with machines? As machines are being programed to learn and adapt, Lewis said, they might in the near future be able to personalize stories for certain audiences.
According to Lewis, to prepare for this new reality, journalism students should learn statistics and the basics of computer programming, to understand how to put math and machines to work on behalf of journalism.
“The opportunities nowadays for students who blend computational and editorial skills are huge,” Lewis said.
Lewis researches how people perceive technology and how that affects the ways they design and deploy technology. An example of this is studying how developers craft software for news.
“Even though my work focuses on technology, there is a distinct human element to it,” Lewis said.
As the founding holder of the Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media at the SOJC, Lewis teaches classes about AI’s relationship with modern media to better prepare students for the industry.
This position allows Lewis to ask the deep questions and dive into research. Even though he has only been at the SOJC for a year, he has set himself up to work on two main research projects. For “The Epistemologies of Digital News Production,” Lewis and his Swedish colleagues, Oscar Westlund and Mats Ekström, recently secured a grant of $486,000 from the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond — the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences — at the University of Gothenburg. Specifically, Lewis will be helping analyze data collected from interviews and observations in newsrooms and news meetings.
Epistemologies is a big word, but it relates to a basic idea: “How do we know what we know?” Over the next three years, the three researchers will investigate how news is made into a form of knowledge. While many might not think of news as knowledge, Lewis argues that news-making is a version of knowledge management.
“We all have different epistemologies by which we make sense of the world,” Lewis said. “And it is important, particularly I think, to understand how journalists develop their own epistemological worldviews and perspectives on how they make sense of what is true and act in a world of facts and information.”
How does this relate to technology? Lewis said that while previous research on news and knowledge focused on television in the 1990s, much less has been done to examine the epistemology of journalism in this current era of data, social media and online participation. This is the niche that Lewis and his colleagues hope to fill.
Lewis’ other project, which is supported in part by the SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center and will run through next summer, will focus on the perceptions of the audience that software developers have in mind when they create technology for automated journalism.
“From the standpoint of people making and implementing software that automates journalism, what kinds of perceptions of the audience do they tend to have?” Lewis explained. “What sort of vision of the audience becomes embedded in the code and the design of AI forms of journalism?”
To find this out, Lewis will conduct interviews with a variety of programmers and editors. This project will connect with other research endeavors, including one that investigates the growth of automated chat systems, or chatbots. He plans to hire student assistants who have taken classes about research methods.
“Some of my most meaningful experiences as a professor have been working with undergraduate research assistants because it gives me a chance to see them capture a sense for what research is, what it can do, to even perhaps get an inkling that they might want to do that someday,” Lewis said.
Lewis plans to publish his work for both projects in many peer-reviewed journals, such as New Media & Society, Journal of Communication, and Digital Journalism. He also wants to write about his findings for the general public.
Becky Hoag is a junior double-majoring in journalism and marine biology, with an environmental studies minor. This is her second term interning for the SOJC Communications Office. She also writes for UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine, and interns at Willamette Resources and Educational Network (WREN), a Lane County wetlands nonprofit. She is interested in being a research scientist and freelance environmental and scientific journalist. This summer, she is attending the Oregon Institute for Marine Biology while working on the climate change-focused journalism project Science and Memory with other members of the SOJC. You can view her work at beckyhoag.com.