A little research and some simple guidelines will let you write worry-free articles for your favourite community news web site.
By Mark Richardson
Published February 14, 2011
"Nature abhors a vacuum." I learned this maxim in my trade, which entails providing a vacuum for industrial processes.
One way to create a vacuum is to condense a vapour in a closed container. This is exactly what has happened to Canadian news.
Consolidation of the news industry giants has shrunk the amount of hard news, investigative reporting and analytical journalism available for interested citizens to consume, creating an information vacuum.
Citizens who desire information that is lacking due to contracting news coverage seek out sites such as Raise the Hammer or Citizens at City Hall (CATCH) to fill the information void.
As we start to learn about the alternative news and viewpoints these free sites present to us, some decide to get more involved, maybe taking the plunge and writing their first comment.
Feeling emboldened from those first comment forays, some decide to take the leap from being a consumer of free content to being a contributor of free content.
On web sites all around the world, the information void is being filled with the work of citizen journalists. This new entity has even been given the irritatingly cute short form of 'cit-j'.
Cit-j's are people just like you who blog, write, rant, research, collate, disseminate, opinionate and everything in between to provide the kind of content that their community (web or real) want and need to read.
There are many rewards that keep people happily providing unpaid content sites like RTH, but cit-j's also need to be aware of the perils and pitfalls that exist as well.
Recent Supreme Court rulings have proven to be very advantageous to cit-j's. The responsible journalism defence for making justifiable mistakes or inaccuracies in an article has been extended to cit-j's and bloggers.
It is important to note that Canada has stricter laws than the United States when copyrighted materials are used or referenced in an article.
Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have Canada's expert on internet law agree to provide some answers on these subjects.
Dr. Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law. I was amazed and very thankful that Dr. Geist agreed to answer some questions for this article via e-mail.
Mark Richardson, Raise the Hammer: Have there been any issues, court rulings or lawsuits you are aware of in Canada relating to Citizen Journalism. Were these copyright issues? Libel issues? Protection of sources?
Michael Geist: Perhaps most important was the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled on the applicability of journalist rights and extended to bloggers and other new media. This was a libel case and that created the responsible journalism defence. See article
RTH: What advice can you give Cit-J's about Canada's fair use laws for copyrighted material and how to protect themselves while using outside sources and pictures?
MG: Fair dealing in Canada currently includes news reporting as a category. It is important to meet all the criteria, including attribution if relying upon the provision.
RTH: How can Cit-J's state potentially controversial opinions on public figures and their actions without exposing themselves to possible legal action?
MG: We have free speech in Canada. Provided that the comment is fair and not libellous, I'm not sure I see the risks.
RTH: What do you foresee in the future for Cit-J's, especially considering the contraction of traditional newspapers? Should CJ's have some training or follow some a set of basic guidelines?
MG: I think there are already large numbers of people contributing to public knowledge and reporting via a variety of platforms - whether blogs, photos, videos, or tweets. While not always labelled citizen journalists, that is often what this is.
RTH: What is the role of the site administrator who publishes material from Cit-J's? Should they carry libel insurance and if they did, would the contributing Cit-J be covered under that? Would the editor, site owner, Cit-J or all three be open to legal action for a posted article?
MG: There are legal issues associated with third party comments on a website, since the protections in Canada differ from those in the U.S. It is important to be aware of the laws and adopt appropriate policies.
RTH: What about the comments section after an article. If 'Awesome Dude' makes libellous statements about 'Hot Roddr' (all made up) is he in legal hot water? Do the rules change if real names are used instead of pseudonyms? What about commenting false or made up information, is the commenter held accountable for their writing or the web master? Do the same rules apply if you published the statement instead of writing it in a comments thread?
MG: Defamation rules apply equally online and offline as well as for anonymous speech.
RTH: Protection of sources? Do CitJ's have any rights to withhold information on sources without 'proper' accreditation? What exactly is valid accreditation?.
MG: They can seek to rely on the same protections. See article
RTH: Once you send in content to a site, who owns that content? Does it automatically become someone else's property? What about any profits generated from re-selling that content?
MG: There are often policies on the site that specify the rights associated with the postings.
[Editor's note: on RTH, the owner always retains full copyright on any article or blog entry we publish.]
RTH: There are tax issues for cit-j's in the US for 'gifting' a story to a commercial news outlet, could that happen here?
MG: I don't know.
RTH: Your opinion on the recent Supreme Court decision where Cit-J's 'can now use the defence of "responsible communication on matters of public interest" as a defence against libel.' I notice that there is a check list of criteria for the publisher to follow; does that mean the onus of proof is on the webmaster and not the author?
MG: No - on the author.
Fair Dealing is the term used for the use of copyrighted material in Canada, Fair Useis the American term. There are differences between the two countries laws, with America generally being more liberal in its allowances.
The following is from the Copyright Act of Canada and pertains to criticism, review and news reporting. Follow these legal guidelines when using material from other sources for an article and you will be safe:
Fair dealing for the purpose of criticism or review does not infringe copyright if the following are mentioned (a) the source; and (b) if given in the source, the name of the author, in the case of a work, performer, in the case of a performer's performance, maker, in the case of a sound recording, or broadcaster, in the case of a communication signal.
Fair dealing for the purpose of news reporting does not infringe copyright if the following are mentioned (a) the source; and (b) if given in the source, the name of the author, in the case of a work, performer, in the case of a performer's performance, maker, in the case of a sound recording, or broadcaster, in the case of a communication signal.
Let's say I wrote an article that angered a powerful person, but the piece is in the public's interest and I can prove that I made a reasonable effort to make sure the facts I'm referencing are correct... maybe something like this.
If that powerful person challenges the accuracy of my facts (and maybe I did have a justifiable inaccuracy) and threatens to take legal action, I now have the Responsible Journalism Defence to protect myself.
This new and powerful legal tool applies to bloggers and cit-j's as well as professional journalists as Michael Geist explained. The key to protecting yourself is in being able to prove that you took every reasonable effort to ensure your facts were as correct as you could possibly ascertain. Do this and you will be able to report worry free.
You may ask yourself, why write something as a citizen journalist? Why take the risk? I can only give you a list of answers that I came to for myself.
Now you do it!
Yes, you. I've read your comments so I know you're smart and witty. You have made me snort milk out of my nose. You have made me scream at my computer. I have re-used your own quotes as fodder for heated rebuttals. I have felt touched and deeply moved by your words.
You have 'it', and you know you do. So please be brave and use 'it'.
I researched and wrote this entire piece so you would learn to have nothing to fear. Follow these recommendations and there will be no comebacks to you.
You may get a few nasty comments, but if you are a regular RTH'er you know that's really nothing to worry about.
We had a gap of meaty, heavy comment worthy content on RTH from Feb. 2/11 to Feb. 10/11. That's what I call an information vacuum.
Together, let's fill that void.