The US sports publication Sports Illustrated is embroiled in scandal after it has been accused of running articles written by artificial intelligence.
An investigative report published by the science and technology news publication Futurism found Sports Illustrated published articles written by fake authors. These fake authors also had headshots and biographies generated by artificial intelligence, Futurism’s investigation found.
For instance, one profile page of purported author “Sora Tanaka” claims she is a product reviewer. The page said: “Sora has always been a fitness guru, and loves to try different foods and drinks. Ms Tanaka is thrilled to bring her fitness and nutritional expertise to the Product Reviews Team, and promises to bring you nothing but the best of the best.”
But it turns out, Sora Tanaka is not a real person.
The Arena Group, the holding company which acquired Sports Illustrated in 2019, denies the allegations. The articles in question were commercial content sourced from third-party advertising company AdVon Commerce, the group said.
But the magazine is also facing criticism for its non-commercial articles allegedly written by AI.
One article about volleyball carried the byline of “Drew Ortiz”. But, like in Sora Tanaka’s case, no Drew Ortiz exists – his biography and headshot were apparently made up by AI, Futurism found.
The Ortiz article in question contained copy that said: “Volleyball is one of the most popular sports in the world, and for good reason. It’s fast-paced, has a high skill ceiling, and is generally an exciting sport to both play and watch. Even people who don’t watch sports can easily understand the intensity and skill required to play volleyball whenever they watch clips. There’s a reason why it’s been such a mainstay in modern sports to this day.”
A spokesperson for the Arena Group wrote in a statement: “Today, an article was published alleging that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles. According to our initial investigation, this is not accurate.
“A number of AdVon’s e-commerce articles ran on certain Arena websites. We continually monitor our partners and were in the midst of a review when these allegations were raised. AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans.”
The Arena Group announced that it cut ties with AdVon and removed its content from Arena websites. The Arena Group also said it does not condone the practice of writing under pseudonyms.
The controversy could spell trouble for the magazine’s credibility, which under past owners had won prestigious journalism prizes, including National Magazine awards.
Sports Illustrated, first published in 1954, is known as well for its swimsuit issues, often featuring covers of bikini-clad fashion models, athletes and other celebrities. But, as Futurism noted, it also once published contributions from famed writers such as William Faulkner and John Updike.
Sports Illustrated is not the only publication dabbling with AI. In January 2023, BuzzFeed’s CEO, Jonah Peretti, announced the website would integrate AI into its content and make it a part of its core business.
BuzzFeed has since published AI-written quizzes and travel guides – a practice with which the company is still experimenting.
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Such moves by Sports Illustrated and BuzzFeed stoke fears of a rise in dystopian content farms and more trouble in the already embattled, shrinking news media sector. The use of AI is cost-efficient compared to human writers and content creators, arguably offering a potential and tempting solution to the financial troubles in the industry.
Sports Illustrated has been in financial troubles for a few years now. In 2019, half of the newsroom was laid off. And earlier this year, another round of layoffs hit the magazine shortly after the Arena Group’s CEO and chairman, Ross Levinsohn, announced the company’s incorporation of AI.
In February, Levinsohn said: “While AI will never replace journalism, reporting, or crafting and editing a story, rapidly improving AI technologies can create enterprise value for our brands and partners,” Levinsohn said.
Despite being a Pulitzer prize-winning outlet, BuzzFeed News shut down in May, and 15% of its workforce was laid off.
Other news organizations such as the New York Times and NBC took a step in the opposite direction, announcing plans to create guardrails for non-human generated content and disinformation as well as protection on articles against being repurposed without credit or context.
The Guardian’s view on generative AI tools is that they are “exciting but are currently unreliable”.
In a statement, the Guardian’s editor in chief, Kath Viner, and chief executive officer, Anna Bateson, said: “There is no room for unreliability in our journalism, nor our marketing, creative and engineering work.”
The Guardian announced it would only use generative AI tools that serve the “creation and distribution of original journalism”.