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CNET rolls back AI-created articles over errors

The Charlotte, North Carolina office complex of marketing firm Red Ventures, the owner of CNET, is seen in an undated handout image. (Photo courtesy Red Ventures, Graphic by The Desk)

CNET, the technology website owned by marketing firm Red Ventures, corrected several errors in stories written by an artificial intelligence (AI) robot that were caught by a rival publication.

The corrections came after CNET editors affirmed that AI-generated stories were subject to a strict editorial review prior to publication, raising questions over whether Red Ventures and its editors were actually reviewing the stories or whether the affirmation was merely to placate critics of the practice.

This week, website Futurism said it found several mistakes in AI-written stories that focused on the topic of personal finance, including one that said investors would earn $10,300 in an interest-bearing account over a year if their initial deposit was $10,000 (the actual amount earned is $300, Futurism noted). Another story erroneously claimed that a person would only pay $1,000 in interest if they took out a $25,000 car loan with a 4 percent interest rate, ignoring the fact that payments are typically made monthly and that interest is charged based on the remaining balance (so it would not be a flat rate).

Futurism didn’t just figure out the errors on their own — they reached out to authoritative, human sources with deep backgrounds in business, who were not only able to point out the mistakes, but explain why the AI-information was wrong.

Futurism described the errors as “dumb…and one that many financially literate people would have the common sense not to take at face value.”

“But then again, the article is written at a level so basic that it would only really be of interest to those with extremely low information about personal finance in the first place, so it seems to run the risk of providing wildly unrealistic expectations,” Jon Christian, the managing editor of Futurism, wrote in his piece.

Christian later tweeted that CNET had amended at least one of the problematic stories with a “gigantic correction.” An analysis of the correction by The Desk found that it exceeded 160 words, and includes updates that changed the initialism “APR” to “APY,” which are two very different types of interest rates.

In a note to readers last week, CNET’s editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo affirmed the website was “experimenting” with AI-written articles, and said bylines on those articles would change from “CNET Money Staff” to “CNET Money.” As part of the update, CNET said it would be more transparent about when those articles were written by AI robots; before the change, the disclosure required users to hover over the byline before they would see it.

Guglielmo said its experiment was rooted in over two decades of reliable technology reporting, and that AI-written stories could eventually “help our busy staff of reporters and editors with their job to cover topics from a 360-degree perspective.”

But critics of CNET’s approach think the move is superficial, one that is intended to help the website better compete against other platforms, with few considerations for journalism.

“The whole plan is all just to chase higher rankings on Google,” Parks Marx, the host of the podcast Tech Won’t Save Us, tweeted on Tuesday.

CNET was acquired by Red Ventures in 2020 as part of a broader $500 million purchase of certain digital editorial assets from ViacomCBS (now Paramount Global). Prior to the acquisition, CNET and other properties laid off around 100 workers.

In a New York Times profile the following year, then-media columnist Ben Smith wrote that Red Ventures had a knack for turning “very specific advice into very big business” — one that brought in over $2 billion in annual revenue and attracted private investment from different private equity firms.

Smith wrote that on one Red Ventures-owned platform, The Points Guy, the company received a $300 to $900 commission whenever someone signed up for certain credit cards through affiliate links on their website. A former senior writer for the website told Smith that the company “is all about profit maximization,” offering significant insight into Red Ventures and the editorial products it runs.

Rick Elias, the owner of Red Ventures, says there’s a hard line between the editorial side of its platforms and the business side, and that employees — specifically, writers at CNET — were encouraged to complain if they felt pressure to cross that line.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).