Saturday, October 14, 2017

Imitation is the sincerest form of...

I suppose that although it's a sad story, I’m proud that my original post on Common Tread seemed to generate a lot more engagement than any of the unauthorized posts it spun off on rival websites. I suppose that if those other stories had opened with something more like, “Over on Common Tread, Mark Gardiner’s put up a detailed report on the Nicky Hayden accident situation. In summary, Gardiner’s found… blah, blah, blah” and written a 300-word Executive Summary of my story, I’d be fine with it. As it is, I don't know how to feel.

A funny thing happened a few weeks back. A link appeared in my Facebook feed – and I should say right now, I don’t know who posted it – that caused me to visit a site I’d never seen before, where I read this post. I have no idea who puts up ‘Motorbike Fans’. It’s all in English but it doesn’t read as if it’s written by native speakers of English. Maybe it’s Italian.

The 300-word post I read said that the Italian prosecutor investigating Nicky Hayden’s fatal accident was about to press charges against the driver who hit him. That sounded about right to me, based on my limited recollection of Italian accident law. (A subject that came to my attention way back when Patrick Head was formally charged with manslaughter after the racing death of Ayrton Senna.)

The first thing I did was to quickly check all the largest U.S.-based motorcycle websites to make sure I wasn’t the last guy to know the case was going forward. When I saw no mention of it on sites like Cycle World, Roadracing World, Cycle News, Asphalt & Rubber, or MO, I wrote a short email to Lance, at Common Tread, asking him whether he’d like me to look into it further, and he immediately responded that I should.

That set in motion an entire day of research. I set my Google language preference to Italian, and began searching through dozens of news reports, mostly stuff that originated in daily newspapers in Rimini, but some from Italian sports newspapers, and Italian motorcycle racing sites.

My passive comprehension of Italian is pretty good; I can read an ordinary newspaper story. Still if I’m working in Italian what I usually do is run stuff through Google Translate, and then go back and check anything that sounds whacky in the original.

I tried to cross-check or confirm anything that appeared to come from a single source, following and reading 20 or more stories and posts. I researched Italian traffic laws and signage, and refreshed my obviously cursory knowledge of Italian accident law.

I called and/or emailed the prosecutor, the forensic investigator, and the lawyers representing both the Hayden family and the driver – although I’ve since received some follow up info from those sources, they contributed very little to my story at the time though they did confirm a few details that had been reported in Italy.

Using Google Streetview, I captured images similar to both Nicky’s and the driver’s perspectives of the crash scene. And I examined dozens of still and video images of crash investigation.

About 36 hours after getting Lance’s “Go”, I delivered a 1,200 word recap of the situation, covering everything I'd learned about the accident and ongoing investigation. I was pretty confident that I'd parsed most of the relevant material in the public domain (for example, security camera footage of the accident has not been made public.) I tried to set it all in the context of the laws and regulations governing fatal accidents in Italy (which are very different than those governing similar accidents here in the U.S.)

Lance liked it, but being a proper journalist by training, he asked me to go back into it and cite a few key sources.

Now, an admission: I’d been racing to get it finished, and hadn’t left a very good trail of bread crumbs. So I had to get back onto Google and re-find sources for attribution. It’s possible that I picked up some details from one source, but later attributed them to someone else who also reported the same fact. The number of sources I cited was fewer than the number of sources I checked, and from which my original notes were compiled.

Meanwhile, throughout the writing, and rewrite/source insertion, and over the 24 hours or so that passed before my story was posted on Common Tread, I kept an eye on competing web sites. I would have been bummed if someone else had scooped me.

The whole Nicky Hayden accident thing is sad, of course, but I also have to admit that I was gratified by the big reaction my story got within hours of being posted on Common Tread. Hundreds of comments, including comments that generally supported my conclusions posted by people in Italy; star MotoGP photographer Andrew Wheeler posted a photo that he took of a memorial at the crash site and described traffic there. In the tiny world of motorcycle journalism, it was a hit. (Sorry for that turn of phrase.)

I was a little dismayed a couple of days later when Lance sent me a one-sentence email that read, “Why do I feel that [REDACTED] just rewrote your story?”

He included a link to another U.S. web site had basically put up a post that looked an awful lot like a straight summary of my account. It presented pretty much the same information in the same order, including several phrases that were reproduced verbatim. That post listed a few sources – a subset of the sources I cited – and then it listed me as a source.

Wow, I thought. If I’m listed as a source, does that mean it’s not plagiarism?

This is an excerpt of Penn State's plagiarism policy. But I admit that I'm not sure what rules (if any) prevail in online 'journalism'.

I don’t talk much shop with my wife, but I mentioned it over dinner that night and she immediately told me to file an outraged complaint, or better yet, send them an invoice.

I was, like, What if that’s just the way journalism works now? I wouldn’t do that, but maybe that just means I’m past my sell-by date.

About a day later, another web site posted a Nicky Hayden accident story, but the information presented was not just a reductive/in-order presentation of information from my story. Still, the only sources listed were, again, the same ones I’d gone back and inserted into my story. (It made me wish I’d put in one completely fictitious source.) And, again, it listed me as a source.

A day or so after that, Cycle World ran a short story on the accident investigation, but that one didn't particularly feel like a rewrite of mine. Why would it? It was written by ‘European Editor’ Bruno dePrato, who is based in Italy. I read his hoping only that I didn’t get anything way wrong. (I didn’t.) That said, I think the appearance of my story was what prompted CW to set dePrato on it.

To be clear: I follow up on leads I see in Facebook posts, or on obscure blogs or websites, all the time. But if I see what looks like a comprehensive, authoritative post on some topic, as far as I’m concerned it’s been done and I leave it at that. 

But maybe that’s just me. And as noted, I am not an authority on what does or doesn’t constitute plagiarism right now.

When I’m assigned to a launch, I read other guys’ tests of the previous generation of whatever bike it is. In between sessions, I talk to other motojournalists about the bike; sometimes I quote specific people but if there’s a consensus opinion I mention that without any particular attribution. If someone seems to have straight-up factual information (“They came with 320mm rotors last year,” or whatever) I might just include that as part of my writeup without quote marks or attribution.

I wrote Lance to ask him what, if anything, he thought I should do. He didn’t seem to feel it was any big deal, and I suppose I don’t either even though at least one guy and probably two guys just piggybacked on about 12 hours of pretty intense work on my part. Maybe in this disrupted era they genuinely felt that by mentioning me as a source, they were giving me valuable ‘exposure’.  

I dunno; we ride on asphalt; the whole surface is a grey area.

What do you think? Should I feel flattered, or ripped off? Feel free to add a comment.

Yann Martel was accused of lifting the entire plot of this award-winning novel from a Brazilian short story. Although he named the Brazilian author in the book's foreword (and claimed that he'd only read a review of the short story, and never read the story itself) he was not insulated from accusations of plagiarism.