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Sports Illustrated owner denies using AI and fake writers to produce articles

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The corporate owner of Sports Illustrated is denying a report that the famed publication produced articles written by artificial intelligence under fake author bylines, while noting that it has withdrawn the stories pending an investigation.

Futurism reported Monday that Sport Illustrated had used AI to generate articles, as well as headshots and biographical information for fictitious writers. The technology publication also said that information about the purported authors “disappeared from Sports Illustrated’s site without explanation” after Futurism approached The Arena Group, a New York-based media company whose other publishing brands include Men’s Journal, Parade and TheStreet.com.

The Arena Group said in a statement posted on social media on Tuesday that the company’s “initial investigation” found that Futurism’s report “is not accurate.” The articles highlighted by Futurism were produced by human writers for AdVon Commerce, which The Arena Group said formerly had a licensing deal with Sports Illustrated to produce e-commerce content. 

“AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans,” a spokesperson for The Arena Group said in its statement. “However, we have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect author privacy — actions we strongly condemn.”

Sports Illustrated is removing the articles produced by AdVon while The Arena Group continues its investigation, the media company said. Sports Illustrated has also ended its partnership with AdVon, according to The Arena Group, which didn’t respond to CBS MoneyWatch’s request for comment. Stephen Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated, did not respond to an inquiry sent to his LinkedIn account.

Although The Arena Group denies using AI to produce stories for Sports Illustrated, the controversy underscores the question of how the media industry and other content producers should address the “lack of robust ethical guardrails” on using the technology, Benjamin Lange, an AI ethicist and research group lead at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich  told CBS MoneyWatch. 

“Journalistic ethics requires adherence to basic principles of honesty, trust, accuracy and objectivity,” he said.

Several publishers and other companies have had to retract articles this year that were produced by AI. In January, for example, CNET published corrections for a number of AI-generated stories after critics noted they were rife with errors. In August, Microsoft in August pulled a computer-generated travel guide from its website after readers pointed out that it recommended tourists in Ottawa, Canada, visit a local food bank. 

Shares of The Arena Group, which is listed on Nasdaq, plunged more than 22% on Tuesday to $2.09 following Futurism’s report. The company, formerly known as TheMaven, rebranded itself in 2021 and is led by Ross Levinsohn, who previously served as CEO of Sports Illustrated. Earlier this month, The Arena Group announced that it had merged with Bridge Media Networks, which produces news, sports and other content.

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