Seth Lewis joins SOJC as Shirley Papé Chair in Electronic Media

As a rising star in mass communication research, Seth Lewis grapples with many of the biggest issues facing the news media, from the future of artificial intelligence in journalism to the relationship between news organizations and audiences. So maybe it’s a good thing that the School of Journalism and Communication’s newest faculty member no longer has to lose sleep over another thorny conundrum: Go Ducks, or go Beavers?
“Growing up in Gresham, I had a split allegiance between the Ducks and Beavers,” he said. “I had no real dog in the fight, so I kind of liked them both.”
Lewis settled that problem by joining SOJC as its inaugural Shirley Papé Chair in Electronic Media. In the new role, he will bring his award-winning research on digital-era journalism to Eugene, where he’ll also teach courses that help students think critically and creatively about the industry they’re preparing to enter.
“A lot of students are being hired not only for their skills practicing journalism, but also for their ideas about how to make it better,” he said. “Part of that is understanding the challenges and opportunities that face journalism, as well as thinking about what the changing nature of technology means for the changing nature of journalism.”
Lewis – a former journalist turned Ph.D. who leaves a position as associate professor at the University of Minnesota – will begin teaching courses in the fall. While in Portland for the What is Media? Conference in April, he sat down with Ben DeJarnette to discuss robot reporters, the future of civic journalism, his decision to move back to Oregon and more.
BD: In the Johnston Lecture last night, John Markoff, with the New York Times, argued that “robot reporters” will have a very difficult time replacing journalists. What’s your take on the opportunities and threats presented by artificial intelligence?
SL: I would generally agree with John. I think he’s right to suggest that we’re more likely to see intelligence augmentation and the rise of assisted technologies that make new kinds of human endeavors more readily possible. The things that can be automated will be automated. But the things that can be automated still makes up a relatively short list.
It strikes me that if our work as journalists can be automated, then we’re probably doing something wrong.
Yeah, precisely. That’s exactly how I describe it to others. If what you’re doing can be automated by computers, why are you doing it? I think the question everyone is worried about, of course, is to what extent automation will eventually displace the work of journalism, as opposed to merely complementing it. But I think that’s still a very long way off.
What do you think is the essence of human journalism?
The essence of human journalism is that human connection. In an idealized sense, journalists are representing communities — both by reflecting communities back to themselves and by helping communities find their best selves through knowledge, information and public deliberation. It’s really hard to see how that becomes completely machine-oriented. But it will become more machine-augmented, and to the extent that some things can be done more efficiently, more cost effectively, more comprehensively through data and automated systems, I think we should embrace those developments.
I’ll be the biggest cheerleader of whatever robot wants to transcribe my interviews.
Exactly. Until we have machines that can transcribe interviews, we’ll be a long way off from displacement.
Your research has also examined how the internet is reshaping the relationship between news organizations and their audiences. What’s the biggest way you’ve seen that relationship change?
There’s a tension in journalism between the logic of professional control and this logic of open participation. On the one hand, journalism has developed over the last 100 years into a profession, like law or medicine, with certain norms and ideals and values. By their nature, professions want to be distinctive, and they want to carve out a space in society that they own. For journalism, that professional control is rooted in being the gatekeeper for society and controlling the gathering, filtering and dissemination of public information.
But the culture of the internet is one of participation, of sharing, of openness, and there’s a gradual push online toward making things less controlled, or at least less controlled by professional gatekeepers. I think that’s a fundamental tension that runs against the grain of journalism’s professional worldview. That isn’t to say either of these perspectives is right or wrong, but it begins to illuminate why the internet has been such a fundamental challenge for journalism. The internet, in both its structural setup and its cultural makeup, fundamentally challenges journalism’s jurisdictional space.
Do you see a way for journalism to resolve that tension?
Sure, I think that, as we’re already seeing, journalism is learning to adapt to the digital space and to figure out what it wants to be as it grows up online. But we’re not there yet. There’s still this tug-of-war over the extent to which audiences can be part of the news-making process. It’s one thing to open up online comment spaces where people can react, or to create spaces for people to upload photos as an eyewitness. It’s a bigger step to allow audiences to participate more meaningfully in the actual construction of news, not merely in the reaction to it. That’s the fundamental piece that I think has yet to be cracked open.
Do you think journalism can keep what’s best about its gatekeeping function — accuracy, rigor, ethics — while also embracing greater participation from the public?
Yeah, I think sometimes we can go to the other extreme and assume that somehow journalism needs to abandon everything it’s done. Or we assume that everybody wants to participate in news, when in fact, that’s not the case. The question becomes: To what extent can the news process be rethought in a way that allows more forms of input and more forms of community engagement? And if the news becomes more of a community construction, might it then be considered more trustworthy? There’s such low public trust in journalism right now, and that’s one of the big problems to solve.

Ben DeJarnette, School of Journalism and Communication