[guest post by JVW]
An amazing story published Monday morning on the website Futurism calls to account the historically-venerable but increasingly-tiresome magazine Sports Illustrated for deceiving the public:
There was nothing in Drew Ortiz’s author biography at Sports Illustrated to suggest that he was anything other than human.
“Drew has spent much of his life outdoors, and is excited to guide you through his never-ending list of the best products to keep you from falling to the perils of nature,” it read. “Nowadays, there is rarely a weekend that goes by where Drew isn’t out camping, hiking, or just back on his parents’ farm.”
The only problem? Outside of Sports Illustrated, Drew Ortiz doesn’t seem to exist. He has no social media presence and no publishing history. And even more strangely, his profile photo on Sports Illustrated is for sale on a website that sells AI-generated headshots, where he’s described as “neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes.”
“Drew Ortiz” is allegedly not the only fake author on the SI website, according to an unnamed source who helped the magazine in its deceptions:
“There’s a lot,” they told us of the fake authors. “I was like, what are they? This is ridiculous. This person does not exist.”
“At the bottom [of the page] there would be a photo of a person and some fake description of them like, ‘oh, John lives in Houston, Texas. He loves yard games and hanging out with his dog, Sam.’ Stuff like that,” they continued. “It’s just crazy.”
Why would SI go to such links to invent ersatz content providers? Apparently because some of the content itself is generated by artificial intelligence:
According to a second person involved in the creation of the Sports Illustrated content who also asked to be kept anonymous, that’s because it’s not just the authors’ headshots that are AI-generated. At least some of the articles themselves, they said, were churned out using AI as well.
“The content is absolutely AI-generated,” the second source said, “no matter how much they say that it’s not.”
After we reached out with questions to the magazine’s publisher, The Arena Group, all the AI-generated authors disappeared from Sports Illustrated’s site without explanation. Our questions received no response.
Sports Illustrated was once the gold standard not only of sports journalism, but of magazine journalism in general. Some of the most celebrated sports writers of the second-half of the Twentieth Century — Dan Jenkins, Jim Murray, Frank Deford, Rick Reilly, Franz Lidz, Gary Smith — were on the SI masthead, and notable literary figures such as William Faulkner, George Plimpton, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name but a few, contributed guest pieces. These days, in a world full of sports blogs, 24-hour sports media on television and the Internet, sports podcasts, and numerous other outlets, SI finds itself with a declining circulation and has responded by branching out into new realms including even opening up sports-themed resort hotels in college towns and the Caribbean.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that while SI is looking to maintain their brand by diversifying their focus, traditional journalism is being neglected. Thus far, the magazine has not been accused of using AI bots to help create sports reportage or write long-form stories, but it would appear that it has been used to generate product guides and reviews on items for which the magazine receives financial compensation for clicks. And to keep it on the QT, it seems that old fake authors would disappear after a while and new fake authors would come along:
Sometime this summer, for example, Ortiz disappeared from Sports Illustrated’s site entirely, his profile page instead redirecting to that of a “Sora Tanaka.” Again, there’s no online record of a writer by that name — but Tanaka’s profile picture is for sale on the same AI headshot marketplace as Ortiz, where she’s listed as “joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.”
“Sora has always been a fitness guru, and loves to try different foods and drinks,” read Tanaka’s bio. “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.”
[. . .]
It wasn’t just author profiles that the magazine repeatedly replaced. Each time an author was switched out, the posts they supposedly penned would be reattributed to the new persona, with no editor’s note explaining the change in byline.
In the least surprising development of all, when Futurism asked Sports Illustrated about this curious behavior, all of the fake authors and their past articles suddenly disappeared from the SI website, with no explanation as to why nor any reply by SI to Futurism. As the article pointed out, at no point did SI ever appear to append any kind of disclaimer that these product guides and reviews had been generated by third-party providers, let alone by a bot.
And, in the second least-surprising development of all, it turns out that SI is not the only Arena Group holding to use AI bot-generated content. Futurism reports that this phenomenon of never heard of before writers suddenly appearing, writing for a short period of time, then being scrubbed from the site is common at TheStreet, a financial publication founded by CNBC’s Jim Cramer which the Arena Group purchased four years ago. And the editorial directors there are even sloppier than those at Sports Illustrated:
Sometimes TheStreet’s efforts to remove the fake writers can be sloppy. On its review section’s title page, for instance, the site still proudly flaunts the expertise of AI-generated contributors who have since been deleted, linking to writer profiles it describes as ranging “from stay-at-home dads to computer and information analysts.” This team, the site continues, “is comprised of a well-rounded group of people who bring varying backgrounds and experiences to the table.”
People? We’re not so sure.
The “stay-at-home dad” linked in that sentence above, for instance, is a so-called Domino Abrams — “a pro at home cleaning and maintenance,” at least until he was expunged from the site — whose profile picture can again be found on that same site that sells AI-generated headshots.
Or look at “Denise McNamara,” the “information analyst” that TheStreet boasted about — “her extensive personal experience with electronics allows her to share her findings with others online” — whose profile picture is once again listed on the same AI headshot marketplace. Or “Nicole Merrifield,” an alleged “first grade teacher” who “loves helping people,” but whose profile is again from that AI headshot site. (At some point this year, Abrams, McNamara, and Merrifield were replaced by bylines whose profile pictures aren’t for sale on the AI headshot site.)
As with Sports Illustrated, it’s not only the fake biographies that are galling; it’s also the utterly insipid and haphazard bot prose:
This article about personal finance by the AI-generated Merrifield, for example, starts off with the sweeping libertarian claim that “your financial status translates to your value in society.”
After that bold premise, the article explains that “people with strong financial status are revered and given special advantages everywhere around the world,” and launches into a numbered list of how you can “improve your finance status” for yourself. Each number on what should be a five-point list, though, is just number one. Mistakes happen, but we can’t imagine that anyone who can’t count to five would give stellar financial advice.
In fairness, the Arena Group has in other circumstances been open about their use of artificial intelligence. Back in February, when the company first announced that they would be using AI as a way to pitch story ideas to journalists and to create a small amounts of content, CEO Ross Levinsohn insisted that there would be ethical limits on how the emerging technology would be used, which would fall well short of using AI bots to generate entire stories. Clearly the Arena Group has failed in that endeavor, as have other web-heavy outlets such as CNET and Bankrate, both owned by Red Ventures; Gizmodo and The A.V. Club both owned by G/O Media; and the infamously horrid BuzzFeed, all of whom have failed to keep their pompous promises to use AI to sharpen content, not to generate it. Even more traditional publishing outfits like Gannett Company, publishers of USA Today and hundreds of local newspapers have been caught publishing AI-written garbage content instead of giving the job to real reporters who are trained by our nation’s finest journalism schools to produce human-generated garbage content.
Futurism sums up the problem with news outlets trying to pass off this sort of nonsense without at least disclosing the source to the readers:
Needless to say, neither fake authors who are suddenly replaced with different names nor deplorable-quality AI-generated content with no disclosure amount to anything resembling good journalism, and to see it published by a once-iconic magazine like Sports Illustrated is disheartening. Bylines exist for a reason: they give credit where it’s due, and just as importantly, they let readers hold writers accountable.
The undisclosed AI content is a direct affront to the fabric of media ethics, in other words, not to mention a perfect recipe for eroding reader trust. And at the end of the day, it’s just remarkably irresponsible behavior that we shouldn’t see anywhere — let alone normalized by a high-visibility publisher.
This sort of mess is another thing to remember next time some blowhard journalist tries to lecture the public about how his industry is the gatekeeper of democracy or is run by the highest ethical standards imaginable. At least a whorehouse can usually be counted upon for quality piano playing.
The Arena Group, via SI’s Twitter account, assures us that this is an issue with a third-party supplier who will no longer be retained. Again SI, as noted above, according to Futurism, never disclosed on their site that these product reviews and other licensed content came from a third party.
Today, an article was published alleging that Sports Illustrated published AI-generated articles. According to our initial investigation, this is not accurate.
The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon…
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) November 27, 2023