Aug 28, 2023 - News

Dispatch pauses AI sports writing program

Illustration of a football hitting a robot on its head.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

The Columbus Dispatch paused use of an artificial intelligence sports writing tool after a Westerville football recap faced criticism on social media that went viral last week.

Why it matters: Newsrooms are increasingly experimenting with generative AI tools, but must grapple with ethical challenges while still maintaining public trust, Axios' Sara Fischer and Ryan Heath write.

State of play: For several days this month, the Dispatch and other Gannett-owned newspapers published dozens of LedeAI game recaps based on simple box score data.

The big picture: News publishers that use AI typically do so under the editorial supervision of humans.

  • The Dispatch's page of ethical principles states, "AI-generated content must be verified for accuracy and factuality before used in reporting."

Yes, but: A Gannett spokesperson did not respond to an emailed question about whether its newsrooms reviewed LedeAI recaps before publication.

The intrigue: In a Dispatch soccer write-up from Aug. 19, AI failed to generate team names and delivered a faulty first sentence.

  • "The Worthington Christian [[WINNING_TEAM_MASCOT]] defeated the Westerville North [[LOSING_TEAM_MASCOT]] 2-1 in an Ohio boys soccer game on Saturday," the story reads.

What they're saying: "This local AI sports effort is being paused," a Gannett spokesperson tells Axios.

  • "In addition to adding hundreds of reporting jobs across the country, we are experimenting with automation and AI to build tools for our journalists and add content for our readers."
  • "We are continually evaluating vendors as we refine processes to ensure all the news and information we provide meets the highest journalistic standards."

Reality check: Gannett has made numerous rounds of layoffs in recent years, shedding nearly half its workforce since its merger with GateHouse Media in 2019.

Between the lines: This is the first high school football season played since Gannett shuttered ThisWeek Community News, a suburban Columbus newspaper chain that produced award-winning local sports journalism.

Of note: Axios does not use generative AI to create content, except where the point is to show readers what the technology can or can't do. In that case, the AI-generated material is clearly labeled.

The bottom line: "The future is now: Journalism without journalists," University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow posted on X above a list of AI-generated high school football stories published in four newspapers, including the Dispatch.

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