Posts Tagged ‘citizen journalist’

Issue of Defamation Overlooked by Some

A federal judge in Oregon has ruled that a blogger could not receive protections granted to mainstream journalists because she was not affiliated with a mainstream media outlet.

While the ruling does have implications for citizen journalists and bloggers, the heart of the case revolved around defamation – a claim that isn’t protected by shield laws and that doesn’t make a distinction on the writer’s status.

To me, those folks who focus on the question of whether a blogger is legally a journalist are missing the point. The point is:  Were the blogger’s reports true or false? In this case, a man’s reputation was damaged and the blogger appeared to have made no effort to prove her statements. This amounts to reckless disregard for the truth.

Here’s a little bit of the history: Kevin Padrick, an Oregon attorney involved in a bankruptcy case, sued Montana blogger Cynthia Cox for defamation after she called him a “thug” and a “thief” in her blog.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that Cox was not a journalist because she had no professional qualifications as a journalist and did not work for a legitimate news outlet. She did not have a journalism education or credentials, and failed to provide evidence she produced an independent product, tried to get both sides of the story or adhered to journalistic standards such as checking her facts.

Because she was not a journalist under the law, the judge ruled she could not claim protections, such as the shield law, granted to mainstream media. But the judge also noted that the shield law does not apply to civil actions for defamation.

Here’s where Cox went wrong. She disregarded the issue of libel, which is defamation or injury to someone’s personal reputation and good name. It’s an issue that should be taken very seriously by every individual, but especially by journalists – whether they are members of the mainstream media, bloggers or citizen journalists.

Cox’s allegations that Padrick was a “thug” and a “thief” who “committed tax fraud” were never proven, according to a piece written by The New York Times’ David Carr.

That means Cox published the defamatory statements in her blog with reckless disregard for the truth or actual malice, which is probably what opened the door for a jury on Nov. 29 to award $2.5 million in the case.

There’s a good lesson to be learned here for all journalists, but especially citizen journalists and bloggers, who don’t deal with libel on a regular basis. Be careful in your reporting and word use. Avoid labeling someone in a way that his or her reputation could be damaged. Finally, don’t disregard the truth or write with malice.

Susan Cormier is the co-author of the “Handbook for Citizen Journalists” (

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12 2011

The Challenge of Obtaining Information Under Deadline Pressure

The idea of completing an article on a deadline can often be intimidating for citizen journalists, especially when hard-to-get interviews are involved.

And there may be times when not all the information can be obtained by the time you need to complete your article. As a citizen journalist, you will need to learn the best way around this difficulty.

For starters, you will probably have to write a follow-up article when more information becomes available.

And you’ll have to be persistent – but not a pest – when you try to contact individuals who have the key information that you need.

There will be occasions when people simply refuse to be interviewed or to be available for an interview. That is their prerogative. No one is required to give you an interview.

But there are techniques you can use to try and get them to talk to you.

1) Always identify yourself and say that you’re working as a citizen journalist for whatever publication or outlet you are writing your story. That information gives you credibility and authenticity, and a reason for requesting an interview.

2) For those individuals who fail to return your phone call, try going to their office to see if you can catch them between meetings. Or, ask someone in the office if there is someone else you could talk to who could provide you with the needed information.

3) Try to understand the source’s position. Perhaps there is a good reason the person is not available to be interviewed. Perhaps the source has meeting after meeting and no time to respond to a phone call.

If that’s the case, let your sources know you will only take a minute of their time. Make sure you have done your research and are knowledgeable about the topic at hand so you won’t waste time asking basic questions.

In the end, it may be impossible to get the interview in the time you have allotted to complete your story. To let your readers know you tried to get all the answers to your questions, you should include a sentence, such as: “Repeated attempts to reach the city police chief were unsuccessful” or
“The mayor failed to return phone calls requesting clarification on the issue.”

Those sentences let your readers know that you realize the story may not be complete and that you tried your best to get answers to the questions they might have.

Susan Cormier is the co-author of the “Handbook for Citizen Journalists“.

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10 2011

Tips for Feature Writing

When I recommended last month that practicing and aspiring citizen journalists should write feature stories, I failed to include some tips that might help them out.

Below are a few thoughts to overcome “writer’s block” or fear of writing a feature story.

1) A feature is a soft news story that is rarely written in the traditional inverted pyramid style of a hard news story. A softer approach is most successful when writing a feature.

2) Features aren’t meant to deliver the news. They are often written to expand on a news story and should contain basic elements of the news story. But their main purpose is to add the human element, to add color and feeling.

3) Several different approaches can be used to write a feature. The story could be a personality profile, a human interest piece or a more in-depth look at an issue.

4) The story should be sprinkled with quotes, especially early in the article, to establish a good reader/source relationship. Quotes are always a great addition to a feature story and can be a wonderful way to end an article.

5) Don’t forget the photos. Like they say, a photo is worth 1,000 words. Make sure to get complete information about the people in any photo, where they are and what they are doing, so a complete cutline can be written.

Susan Cormier is the head coach in charge of training at the National Association of Citizen Journalists ( and co-author of the “Handbook for Citizen Journalists” (

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01 2011