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The Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Sports Journalism

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Sports Journalism by Matthew Zimmerman,Lauren M. Burch & Brian Moritz.

The potential use of artificial intelligence (AI) in sports journalism—and journalism in general—has reached center stage at a time when there has been increased focus on the importance of reliable media. Notably, the on-going discussion about the positives and the potential challenges of AI does not lend itself to clear good-versus-evil conclusions (Jarvis, 2024). The continued development of new technologies is seen as supplementing and potentially surpassing the analytical abilities of humans (McLean et al., 2022). While journalists might be intrigued at the possibilities of AI in terms of assisting with analysis and with story production (for instance, the use of networked drones in news gathering is an ongoing consideration [Nwanakwaugwu et al., 2023]), implementing AI as part of a media approach has proven more challenging.

Observers have long understood that AI could create a sports game story based on a box score. If AI can write a competent (if not particularly enthralling) game story, how long before a media company looks to save money by asking computers to write previews, feature stories, personality profiles, analytics stories, and so on? Some media outlets have already embraced AI’s potential to streamline news reporting. Media giant Gannett experimented with using AI to write high school football stories, an idea that was not a hit with readers (Bauder, 2023). Both CNET and the Associated Press used AI to assist in writing stories about financial markets, and the AP also has used AI in writing sports game previews (Bauder, 2023).

AI’s increased use has led to mistakes, to be sure. Following a shooting at Michigan State University in February 2023, Vanderbilt University officials found themselves needing to apologize for using the AI program ChatGPT to write a message to the VU community about the tragedy. It did not take someone savvy in AI programs to spot the issue, as the message ended with “Paraphrase from OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI language model, personal communication, February 15, 2023” (Mendoza, 2023). In late 2023, legacy magazine Sports Illustrated was found to have used AI-generated stories in its coverage. Content—including some writers’ names—was removed after a third party exposed the use of AI to create that content. SI, for its part, blamed an outside contractor and announced an ending to its partnership with that contractor. SI’s union released a statement expressing its displeasure (Bauder, 2023).

Questions about the use of AI are not limited to storytelling through words. The ease of editing still photographs and videos also presents a potential ethical challenge for sports journalists (Moreland, 2024). Cameras have become easier to use than ever before, and with easily obtainable editing software, nonprofessionals can create visual images that are of top quality to the layperson’s eye. In effect, sports journalists who want to use the AI features in these editing tools responsibly are playing catchup with the rest of society. And considering their ease of use, can sports journalists forgo the use of AI tools (Moreland, 2024)?

The use of AI certainly raises many ethical concerns, among them whether the use of AI to create sports stories might lead to job losses for writers (Latar, 2018; Segarra-Saavedra et al., 2019). Can AI create realistic human-sounding dialogue and writing? Can AI duplicate human intuition? What limitations remain, and at what rate will the list of AI’s limitations get smaller? Anxiety related to technology has long affected journalists’ viewpoints. This includes not only anxiety related to the need to learn new approaches but also worries that technology might streamline the job of a journalist and thus lead to automation taking the place of humans (Guiterrez Lopez et al., 2023). Other ethical concerns include who programs the AI? What instructions will be given to AI when creating news media content? Also, students and scholars must consider the outsized influence of social media platforms like Facebook and Google on the dissemination of news stories (Baaseed, 2023).

Human decision-making and journalistic ethics remain important even with these new methodologies (Guiterrez Lopez et al., 2023), and the people and groups tasked with charting media’s course through new technologies have taken notice of the increasing use of AI. In early 2023, the Society of Professional Journalists released a report focusing on ethical issues related to the use of AI. It noted the importance of the human element in media and the need to continue to strive for honesty with news consumers regarding all practices in journalism, including the use of AI (Society of Professional Journalists, 2023). Later in 2023, the Public Relations Society of America also released guidelines regarding best practices for the use of AI. Titled “Promises and Pitfalls,” the report urged verification of AI-generated information and a continued ethical approach (Staley et al., 2023).

In response to the evolving use of AI and other technologies such as augmented reality, virtual reality, and Internet of Things in sports and sports journalism, it is advisable that young reporters learn about these technologies and their potential effects to the same level as a sports journalist might learn everything they can about the upcoming free-agency period or about how analytics have affected shot selection in basketball. Going forward, part of a sports journalist’s role will be to interpret how this technology influences sport, every bit as much as a sports journalist must be able to explain to readers why what looked like a catch was not a catch. And remember: Human journalists’ skill and experience will complement emerging technology and vice versa (Torrijos, 2019). Humans can use technology to help them to produce interesting stories; AI cannot do the same to the same level (Latar, 2018).

Practical Use of Artificial Intelligence

The use of AI in sports journalism will undoubtedly continue to evolve. Here are some tips for ensuring AI is used ethically and correctly.

  • Be ethical and transparent. When deciding to use AI, sports journalists should keep the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics in mind, including being ethical and transparent. Sports journalists should take responsibility for their work (Society of Professional Journalists, 2023). To follow the SPJ code of ethics, sport journalists should clearly acknowledge the use of AI (Bostwick, n.d.).
  • Prioritize fact-checking. Before using any material generated by AI tools, validate the sources of information and fact-check data. It is the responsibility of the sports journalist—not the AI system—to verify that content is not infringing another’s work. Sports journalists must prioritize fact-checking. Otherwise, they become part of the problem by lending credibility to inaccurate information (Bostwick, n.d.; PRSA, 2023).
  • Act independently. Sports journalists who use AI tools may not fully understand how those tools work, and they may not be aware of potential biases within the algorithms. This can prevent them from being fully independent (Bostwick, n.d.). Thus, sports journalists should take the time to learn how AI tools work.
  • Recognize the limits of technology. Understand that there are limits to AI software and know what those limits are. AI is not a substitute for human judgment, and it cannot replicate human experience (PRSA, 2023).
More Excerpts From Introduction to Sports Journalism