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  • Writer's pictureBen Pawlak

Mounting Ethical Concerns at the Forefront of Sports Media

Sports Illustrated Commits Journalistic Malpractice with AI-generated Content

By: Ben Pawlak

December 14, 2023

Photo Credit: Authentic Brands Group

Sports Illustrated (SI), as the sports world once knew it, has been dying for a few years now. The most recent negative headlines surrounding SI could be the nail in its coffin.

Sports Illustrated has allegedly published articles written by artificial intelligence (AI), attributing those stories to fake writers that were also generated by AI. The scathing report was first reported on Nov. 27th by Futurism, a media company based out of New York City, and it was confirmed by a multitude of established, trustworthy sources including AP News and PBS. Futurism pointed to product reviews published by SI written by unidentified authors. In fact, they also found the profile picture of one of those authors, Drew Ortiz, on a website that sells AI-generated portraits. Ortiz’s profile claimed that he “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.” An anonymous Sports Illustrated employee told Futurism that the company has been using AI to create content, and in response, SI immediately took down the profiles and articles in question and blamed the incident on a third party organization, AdVon Commerce, who they partner with for the sake of content-generation partnership.

Photo Credit: Futurism

For a long time (approximately 60 years), Sports Illustrated was the gold standard of sports media content, synonymous with excellent writers covering groundbreaking stories for the world to consume both recreationally and scholastically. Cracks had begun to appear in the glossy exterior of the company’s once-sterling reputation in June of 2017, when the magazine’s publisher, Time Inc., laid off 300 employees at once. They justified this decision by revealing that magazine subscriptions had decreased from 3.2 million to 2.75 in just a decade. With such a massive chunk of their primary revenue stream gone, the company began to enact further changes. The once-weekly magazine changed to a bi-weekly publication schedule, shifting the focus of their content creation to meet the massive uptick in demand for digital and social content. The massive decrease in popularity of print magazines is not something that SI could have foreseen in their heyday in the late 20th century, but their attempts to translate the quality of their print work to the digital medium have been a pathetic failure for reasons completely within their control. In this scenario, it’s clear that SI published AI-generated content as a shortcut. It was easier (and very likely cheaper) for the company to tap into an instantaneous source of content rather than letting the creative process run its course among the writers they actively employed.

The outrage directed at Sports Illustrated is absolutely warranted. From a fundamental perspective, the job of the media is to deliver the truth to an audience that needs it. If the media is too lazy or cheap to rely on real people to find and broadcast that truth, the media cannot - and will not - be trusted by the general public. Misattributing the source or origin of any content, no matter the reason, is unacceptable. Using AI-generated content is certainly a controversial topic, but it isn’t morally damning in a vacuum. However, given the context - the very publication which legitimized sports media in the first place undermining its reputation for almighty dollar - this incident is extremely concerning. This scandal is the culmination of a gradual trend in the world of sports media over the last few years: big-name media companies are “selling out” for clicks, and it’s hard to blame them. The ecosystem of sports content is more vibrant and diverse than ever before, and it’s all at the fingertips of the consumer thanks to the internet. The coverage of sports is no longer limited to what happens on the field of play. Sports media companies have capitalized on the cross-cutting interests that their consumers share with the non-sporting elements of contemporary society. 

The evolution of ESPN perfectly exemplifies this trend. Their content package used to be very simple, an endless amount of live sports to engage with and a hallmark TV show (Sportscenter) led by talented anchors to condense the highlights in a digestible manner. These days, ESPN has spread their wings to soar in the digital age, encompassing fashion, music, memes, podcasting, betting, tourism, and more into their content. Sportscenter is no longer their main attraction on TV, and they’ve instead shifted gears to producing shows focused on picking and choosing relevant narratives to spark debates between the company’s top personalities. It’s a short-form content machine which maximizes viewership on all platforms by generating an endless stream of clicks and reactions from the consumer. Love it or hate it, it works, and it’s here to stay. 

The Sports Illustrated Union published a statement shortly after the debacle unfolded, stating that they “demand the company commit to adhering basic journalistic standards, including not publishing computer-written stories by fake people.”  Since convenience and cost-effectiveness is never a substitute for quality content, one can only hope that SI hasn't opened a Pandora’s box of sports media companies ditching their human writers in favor of AI-generated content.


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