Sports Illustrated’s reported use of AI authors, alleged cover-up causes outrage

In a statement to the New York Daily News, The Arena Group denied that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles. — Mark Brown/Getty Images/TNS

NEW YORK: Explosive allegations that Sports Illustrated (SI) ran articles under artificial-intelligence authors – and later attempted to cover up doing so – continue to outrage readers, the outlet’s employees and the journalism community at large.

On Monday, the website Futurism reported fake authors with AI-created headshots populated the SI site and would be periodically removed and replaced with others. Some of the actual articles were also created by AI, a source claimed.

“The content is absolutely AI-generated,” that source told Futurism, “no matter how much they say that it’s not.”

One such author page using the name “Drew Ortiz” featured an image available for purchase on a website that sells AI-created headshots, according to the report.That page eventually disappeared and reportedly redirected readers to another using the byline “Sora Tanaka,” which also used an image available on the AI headshot site.

“Sora has always been a fitness guru, and loves to try different foods and drinks,” that author bio read, before also disappearing, according to Futurism. “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.”

All of the AI authors disappeared from the Sports Illustrated website once Futurism reached out to SI’s parent company, The Arena Group, for comment, according to Monday’s report.

In a statement to the New York Daily News, The Arena Group denied that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles.

“The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon Commerce. ... AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans,” an Arena Group representative said.

“According to AdVon, their writers, editors, and researchers create and curate content and follow a policy that involves using both counter-plagiarism and counter-AI software on all content,” the statement continued. “However, we have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect author privacy – actions we don’t condone – and we are removing the content while our internal investigation continues and have since ended the partnership.” AdVon Commerce did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The News.

The accusation that Sports Illustrated – a decades-long leader in sports journalism – housed content not created by humans was already enough to trouble many. That SI allegedly did so without disclosing its AI authors and went as far as to delete them when caught took the blowback even further.

Sports Illustrated’s union said it was “horrified” by the report that The Arena Group “published AI-generated content under SI’s brand with fabricated bylines and author profiles.”

“If true, these practices violate everything we believe in about journalism,” the union said. “We deplore being associated with something so disrespectful to our readers.”

SI reporters were similarly disgusted.

“Along with basic principles of honesty, trust, journalistic ethics, etc. – I take seriously the weight of a Sports Illustrated byline,” Emma Baccellieri, who covers MLB and women’s basketball for the magazine, wrote on X. “It meant something to me long before I ever dreamed of working here. This report was horrifying to read.”

The Futurism report comes less than a year after The Wall Street Journal detailed The Arena Group’s use of AI to dig through its publications’ archives for articles like one that appeared in Men’s Journal with the headline, “Proven Tips to Help You Run Your Fastest Mile Yet.” That article, which used the byline “Men’s Fitness Editors,” included a disclaimer citing the use of OpenAI technology and said it had been fact-checked by humans.

“Will it enable us to do more content? Probably, because you’ll have more time,” Ross Levinsohn, The Arena Group’s chairman and chief executive, told WSJ in that February article. “It’s not about ‘crank out AI content and do as much as you can.’ Google will penalise you for that and more isn’t better; better is better.”

Earlier this year, newspaper publisher Gannett halted an experiment using AI for select sports content after errors appeared in stories. Then last month, Gannett denied that a partner, which The Washington Post identified as AdVon Commerce, used AI for content appearing on the shopping outlet Reviewed. – New York Daily News/Tribune News Service

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