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'Sports Illustrated' is accused of posting articles by writers created by AI

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This next story is about what happened when AI met SI. Sports Illustrated and its parent company have been rocked by accusations that it has posted articles by authors who do not exist. These writers were created by artificial intelligence - that is, computers. According to the news site Futurism, several journalists at SI say some articles were written by computers, too. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is with me. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this is bananas, this story.

FOLKENFLIK: Bananas.

KELLY: Just walk us through the allegations.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, all credit to Futurism here. They did a piece based on both talking to folks inside Sports Illustrated, unnamed journalists there, and also their own analyses, finding out that, in fact - that there are authors that are fake. There's, for example, a guy named Drew Ortiz who apparently wrote a piece about what was the best volleyball to buy - turns out Drew Ortiz doesn't exist, turns out Futurism was able to find that his photograph was on a database of AI-created images meant to look like photographs of real people and that some unnamed journalists at SI say some of the articles themselves were fake. And obviously...

KELLY: These are real journalists at SI, we should note - real, actual people. OK.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, right, real ones - the idea being the fake authors were meant to give the AI-created post credibility. So, again, to underscore both that some articles were generated by AI and that the notional authors were created by AI as well - what a humbling thing this is for Sports Illustrated. It was one of the first publications I ever subscribed to in the '70s. It set the standards for sports journalism for decades. And it was really known - what? - for its writing, the heart of its journalists - people like Frank Deford and Sally Jenkins.

KELLY: Yeah. So what is Sports Illustrated saying?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Sports Illustrated and its parent company, Arena, says the most serious claim isn't true - that no content was generated by artificial intelligence, that their outside contractor, called AdVon, gave assurances all the articles were written and edited by people but that some of their writers used a pen- or pseudo-name - this is the phrasing of Sports Illustrated - in certain articles to protect author privacy. Sports Illustrated's parent company said it also essentially severed that contract with the outside group. I might add that the full statement that was released read a little bit as though it had been generated by artificial intelligence itself. It didn't answer a whole host of questions.

KELLY: Yeah. And I will note I was going back and reading some of the articles in question, and they make no sense. Some of them really do not sound like they're written by a human being.

FOLKENFLIK: This guy Drew Ortiz wrote this piece. He claimed, you know, it's hard to practice volleyball without a volleyball. These are insights that don't need to be shared with the broader public.

KELLY: How unusual would it be if a publication like, as you say, the storied Sports Illustrated - if it were relying on artificial intelligence to this degree?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. So a lot of news organizations are deploying artificial intelligence in scouring databases and figuring out how to add, you know, to its journalistic output. But we've seen scandals like this erupt over the past year. Futurism had early this year revealed that CNET, which covers, you know, digital media, had been relying on seemingly artificial intelligence in developing and posting articles. It pulled those back. Similarly, Gannett, which owns hundreds of publications around the country, using the same outside vendor Sports Illustrated, had posted articles that were then disavowed as well after this was revealed to be the case that AI was involved. And I want to also add this outside vendor didn't reply to my request for comment for our conversation.

KELLY: I fear I know the answer to this last question, David, but what might a revelation like this do for trust in the media writ large?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, serious news organizations, including NPR, right now are issuing sort of holding policies, advisories to their newsroom saying, look. This is going to be a tool. We want to figure out how to use it but use it ethically and to enhance our journalism, not to replace it. What you're seeing are journalists inside places like Sports Illustrated objects strongly to the use of this both because they're worried it could displace jobs, but also, it's displacing the credibility of what they do and treating their audiences simply as consumers and not as citizens interested in a larger world.

KELLY: That is NPR media correspondent, a real person, David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAH-LAS' "RASPBERRY JAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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