12 Dec 2023

Sports Illustrated CEO becomes the first high-profile casualty of AI plagiarism

Positive Media Relations

Written by Joe Jordan, Senior Account Executive at Spreckley

The Arena Group, publisher of Sports Illustrated, announced this week that they’re parting ways with CEO Ross Levinsohn. A press release issued by the board cited the need to “improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company” as the reason behind the decision.

However, in reality Levinsohn’s termination is the result of a scandal that could have a knock-on effect for the wider journalistic profession: last month a report by Futurism revealed that Sports Illustrated has written articles, created fictitious authors and even generated their headshots and biographies, using artificial intelligence (AI). If you’re a regular follower of the work of rising Sports Illustrated stars such as Drew Ortiz and Sora Tanaka, I hate to break it to you, but their entire portfolios are the result of a few paragraphs of text thrown into ChatGPT.

The fact that Levinsohn was dismissed so soon after the scandal broke indicates that the publishers are standing firm against the use of AI as a journalistic resource. But how much longer will the industry resist the growing influence of this technology?

From doom-mongering to defiance

AI has threatened to disrupt the established media landscape ever since the emergence of AI chatbots late last year. Instant content generation is the strength of platforms such as ChatGPT, so it was inevitable that the sector’s incumbents would begin to wonder how quickly they could put this technology to work.

And talk very swiftly led to definitive action. German tabloid Bild, Europe’s biggest-selling newspaper, axed 200 jobs back in June as part of a €100m cost-cutting programme based on the potential of AI. Before the decision was made, the CEO of Axel Springer SE (Bild’s publisher) Mathias Döpfner stated that only fields producing original commentary, such as investigative journalism, were likely to escape the AI overhaul unscathed.

This pragmatic assessment of the role AI will play in the future of journalism sent alarm bells ringing for journalists and publishers alike, and it was surprising to see wholesale change implemented so rapidly.

With this in mind, it’s also somewhat unexpected that a prominent name in the industry has received his marching orders for deploying AI to produce content. There’s an argument that this shows the industry is not yet ready to see this technology put into practice, and that Levinsohn has paid the price for making a premature venture into unchartered territory.

Deceit will get you fired

It’s likely that the duplicitous way in which Levinsohn approached his AI takeover was his undoing. Creating fake journalists with AI-generated headshots was a clear attempt to con Sports Illustrated readers into thinking they were consuming content that had come from an actual human being.

Now, Sports Illustrated may not be the industry’s gold standard for integrity, quality and depth, but it’s still scandalous to cut corners so drastically when customers are parting with their hard-earned cash to consume what they think is editorially driven content.

If Levinsohn had been honest from the outset and admitted to using AI to write articles, would he have suffered a different fate? Considering the fact that many think this is the direction in which the industry is headed, there’s a good chance he’d have been treated more favourably in the court of public opinion if he’d opted for transparency rather a façade verging on absurdity.

Who knows, a few decades down the line we may have even been lauding him as a pioneer of the next generation of journalism.

What does AI journalism mean for PR?

With technological change seemingly on the horizon – whether this is immediate or years down the line – the implications for the journalistic profession will undoubtedly also influence the PR industry.

As a PR professional, one of the most important aspects of the job is building authentic, human relationships with the journalists we interact with on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis, and the removal of this connection would have a profound impact on what it takes to do the job.

I also believe that synchronicity between the two professions illustrates exactly why we’re not yet ready to see AI-powered journalism rolled out on an industry-wide basis. Having another person on the end of a phone call or email pitch is the only way to truly evaluate the merits and nuance of a story. It’s likely we’d see important news and developments slip through the cracks without relying on emotional intelligence to determine exactly why a topic has meaning.

Ultimately, AI remains an important – and slightly scary – driver of change across all forms of media. But, in an industry where ethics and integrity must always be a top priority, it’s probably for the best that we proceed with caution.

In Levinsohn’s case at least, perhaps a little less spent on raunchy photoshoots and a bit more investment in the professional development of real-life journalists could have kept him at the Sports Illustrated helm for a little while longer.