What happened to Sports Illustrated?
Sports Illustrated recently pulled author profiles and articles from its website after reporting found they were generated by AI.
What does the incident tell us about AI in journalism today?
Today, On Point: SI’s continued decline and the rise of AI in journalism.
Maggie Harrison, writer for Futurism. Author of the recent article “Sports Illustrated Published Articles by Fake, AI-Generated Writers.”
Richard Deitsch, media reporter for The Athletic. Previously worked for 20 years for Sports Illustrated. Host of the “Sports Media with Richard Deitsch” podcast.
Lynn Walsh, assistant director at Trusting News. Former ethics chair and national president for the Society of Professional Journalists.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Sports Illustrated. You used to go to the magazine for the best in sports journalism. Making the cover of SI could turn an already big name in sports into a global superstar. It was the magazine that loved sports for the sake of sports, while also bringing a literary creativity that turned sports articles into great sports stories.
Okay, so that was a long time ago. And in more recent times, SI, let me just put it this way. For those of you old enough to remember, you remember there was that ABC Wild World of Sports intro from the late 1970s? The one where that ski jumper in the intro who represented not the thrill of victory, but the agony of defeat.
That guy who crashed so badly while coming off the ramp that honestly, he just could not look away? Yeah, that’s the Sports Illustrated of recent years. So you’d think things couldn’t get much worse for the magazine. And then, along comes SI writer Drew Ortiz. He quote, grew up in a farmhouse surrounded by woods, fields, and a creek.
His profile read, that’s what it described him as. He quote, spent much of his time in 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. End quote. Ortiz’s profile had his image, and his email, firstname.lastname@example.org. What could possibly go wrong?
This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Something did go wrong. And that is, Drew Ortiz wasn’t a real writer. He wasn’t even real. Maggie Harrison, who or what is Drew Ortiz?
MAGGIE HARRISON: It’s a great question. It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me. Drew Ortiz, like you said, he is a fake writer or was a fake writer. He’s since been deleted with a fake bio and an AI generated face that we’re able to find at a website that sells AI generated headshots. His purpose has been disputed.
Our sources at the content provider alleged that his fake profile was used to conceal AI generated content. Sports Illustrated and the Arena Group allege that he was a very robust pen name for an individual writer, which is a very interesting claim and a very interesting take on the use of a pen name.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so first of all, let me introduce you properly. This is Maggie Harrison. She’s writer for Futurism. It’s an online publication that covers the future of science and tech, and she broke this story recently. It was headlined, Sports Illustrated published articles by fake AI generated writers. So to be clear, no matter what certain representatives of SI and its owners say, you feel confident from your reporting that Drew Ortiz is not a he, but an it.
HARRISON: Yes, exactly. Drew Ortiz is not a real person. We cannot find a trace of him anywhere else, and in general, I have yet to meet a human with an AI generated face that we purchased from an online marketplace.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I’m sorry. This is actually a very serious issue in journalism, and I don’t mean to laugh, but the kind of, there is a little edge of ridiculousness around it.
I’ve, all week long, I’ve had to train myself not to say he, and just to say it.
HARRISON: It’s very strange, and like you said, it’s very serious, but at the same time has just this very unique absurdity on so many different levels.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so what first put you on to the fact that some of the articles, and he was doing a lot, it was doing a lot of product reviews, right?
So what first put you on to that some of these things might have been generated by AI and not a real person?
HARRISON: That’s a, it’s a very good question, and we do have a lot of ongoing reporting that we’re doing. So there are some things I can’t quite speak to. But we, there were similar reports that came out some similar allegations at a separate commerce site, the USA Today affiliated website Reviewed, which is owned by the newspaper giant Gannett. They had made allegations of not just AI generated content being published on their website, but of AI generated people as well, which, we’ve been covering at Futurism.
We’ve been covering a lot of AI journalism, since CNET broke in January, we’ve been following it, AI is a central beat for us. And AI journalism, of course, as somebody in the media industry and just as a consumer of media is fascinating and very important. So we’ve been following it very closely.
But the allegation of, we’ve seen a lot of AI efforts at this point, but the allegation of fake people to publish it under, that was a very new and striking claim. We just pulled a few threads, and we were able to, so I guess a very useful way to frame it is that we were looking for it.
HARRISON: We were looking for this kind of content somewhere else and we happened upon it at Sports Illustrated and, if I hadn’t been looking, I’m sorry —
CHAKRABARTI: No, I was going to say, so given that you were tipped off. That’s what generated the search, as you said. But I think you’re about to say, if you hadn’t been looking for it, would you have known that it was there?
HARRISON: No, if I really looked closely, I would have thought that guy’s face is very strange. (LAUGHS) But in general, I probably would say that’s some really weird editing that they did, or, I wouldn’t chalk it up to this guy is probably fake, which I think is a very, to me, it marks a very strange and important turn in just, life again, as a consumer of media and the questions that we ask ourselves and the quest to have media literacy.
But yeah, so if I was an everyday consumer, especially, it’s volleyball blogs, it’s blogs about fishing bait. It’s not anything. It’s not hard-hitting news that might be being published under a fake person, or I’m not necessarily thinking is this misinformation? But it is, because of the nature of the content and just because of the fact that this isn’t something I’m looking for yet, as some somebody who’s just a regular consumer of news online, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting because the product review angle fascinates me because it may not be one of the in-depth sports articles, but it’s designed to sell something to people. So we’ll get back to the business aspect of this in a second, but can you give me some examples? You mentioned volleyball and as you went through Drew’s articles, the volleyball one stands out because you quoted some language from its article on that.
HARRISON: Yes, it’s very stilted and very strange. Like some of the copy is you know, passable enough, but I think the way I’ve found very useful to explain is that it’s if an alien came to earth and had access to every single textbook that existed about volleyball, had every text available, had all of the information it needed, but also had no concept of what it was to be in a physical body and actually didn’t know anything about volleyball.
That’s how the text itself reads. Like I wouldn’t read it and think this person knows volleyball. I would think this is a really strange way to discuss buying a volleyball or fishing bait or whatever it, what have you.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, so you quote an Ortiz article where the article warns that volleyball, quote, “can be a little tricky to get into.”
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh. This is serious, especially without an actual ball to practice with.
HARRISON: And again, it is funny, like there are those two sides. There’s a seriousness side and there’s that absurd, just bizarre side to it. But yeah. And again, it’s not incorrect.
Like I would, if somebody said yes or no, is this correct or incorrect? I would say it’s probably right that it would be tricky to play the game. Should you not have the equipment to play, but it doesn’t really offer value to the reader. I’m sure if I clicked on an article that was about the best volleyballs to buy, I wouldn’t need that explained to me.
It’s a lot of like fluffy filler.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now aside from just looking through the articles and being like, this is weird. It doesn’t sound like it was written by a human. You actually talk, do you talk to some people involved with the generation of this particular content?
HARRISON: Yes, so I spoke with several people who were close to the creation of the content at the third-party provider of the content, which we don’t name them in the article, but they were named by Sports Illustrated. After the fact, once we published the article, Sports Illustrated came out with a statement, they named the third-party provider, it’s called AdVon Commerce, and we have spoken to insiders at AdVon Commerce who were close to the creation of Sports Illustrated and the Arena Group content specifically, and they said, it’s AI generated.
We have an AI operation and Drew Ortiz is one of several profiles that are fake.
CHAKRABARTI: At Sports Illustrated?
HARRISON: At Sports Illustrated, specifically.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Sports Illustrated and its owner, the Arena Group, have pulled all of the Ortiz articles off of SI. Have they pulled anyone else’s articles off?
HARRISON: Yes, David Ortiz has since been deleted. They actually deleted a full section of the website where a lot of this specific content was housed. It was seemingly operated and published mostly. We haven’t traced it or published; we haven’t traced it to other areas of the website. But it was published to this site called Reviews and over at TheStreet, which is a sister website of also owned by the Arena Group, a sister website of Sports Illustrated.
There was a similar section. It’s titled Reviews. There’s all kinds of, these articles published under various fake names. But we had noticed it was very strange. So they would have … published articles for a while. And then David Ortiz was then replaced by a new fake person named Sora Tanaka.
And this happened in some other instances too, where these fake profiles were intermittently scrubbed off of the website and just replaced with a new fake person. And then a few weeks ago, they were seemingly replaced by all real people, real contractors who work for this third-party company, which, and no editorial update, like throughout all of this, there was not one notice from the editors at either the third party or at Sports Illustrated to say, “Hey, we made a major editorial change to all of these articles.”
And actually, it wasn’t written by the person that we said it was written by. And then after we had emailed the Arena Group, they were deleted.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that’s important to note, right? That the editorial staff at Sports Illustrated and the Writers Union were not involved with this at all. In fact, the Writers Union has put out a pretty lengthy response statement on the AI, Drew Ortiz scandal at SI saying they too are demanding answers and transparency.
So take a quick second here, Maggie, and describe to us, someone was making these decisions. Were you able to find out who and why? What was their intent?
HARRISON: So I don’t want to speculate on the decisions being made in the C suite, and the Sports Illustrated, the Arena Group C suite, and we do have some forthcoming reporting coming out about this but yeah, it’s an interesting question, and it’s a very, again, I keep going back to the word strange and absurd, it’s a very bizarre thing to do on especially a website like Sports Illustrated, we’ve been in our coverage of synthetic content online, there’s a lot of AI spam, there’s a lot of synthetic spam, and a lot of fully synthetic websites being spun up, but this isn’t that, this is Sports Illustrated.
This is one of the most storied American literary bodies in our nation’s history. So the intent to me, I can’t really see a reason for using these names and these profiles for any reason other than to conceal the nature of the content.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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