By: Caryn Rousseau
Miami real-estate agent Lucas Lechuga began blogging to share his knowledge of the local market. He didn’t bargain for a $25 million defamation lawsuit when he wrote that a Miami developer had gone bankrupt decades ago.
In Lake Geneva, Wis., commodities trader Gary Millitte registered the Internet domain name LakeGenevaNews.com eight years ago, but he is so worried about the legal boundaries of writing online that he still hasn’t started the ultra-local news site.
Non-journalists entering the world of blogs, online feedback forums, online videos and news Web sites provide information that newspapers and other media can’t or don’t. But many are now turning to professional journalists for help with dilemmas they’re facing: When is something libelous? What’s the difference between opinion and news? How do you find public documents?
About a dozen would-be reporters navigated the basics of journalism at a recent training session offered by the Society of Professional Journalists in Chicago.
Lechuga, who didn’t attend the training, said, “It would definitely have been something that would be worthwhile, and I’d (have) been able to prevent this.” Lechuga, who jumped into the world of online publishing with a finance degree, said that the still-pending claims against him arose from a question of semantics and that he would have chosen his words differently if he had a second chance.
Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., which supports working journalists, praised the effort to offer training to so-called citizen journalists.
“I think that what we’re moving toward is some kind of positioning between amateur and professional,” Clark said.
Amateurs have long contributed to professional news reports, including the film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and photos from the Virginia Tech massacre last year, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004, Clark said.
Now, many distribute their content on their own, and some have gotten into trouble, said Clint Brewer, national president of SPJ.
Geoff Dougherty, editor of the Web site ChiTownDailyNews.org and a presenter at the SPJ program, is trying to prevent that by offering his reporters online training.
With a $340,000 Knight News Challenge grant, he’s creating a team of 77 to report on the smallest of meetings in every city neighborhood — gatherings that mainstream news organizations don’t cover.
“I see us in five years as the go-to source for Chicago news,” said Dougherty. “It’s a big goal.”
Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association, said more than 100 judgments valued at $17 million have been handed down against bloggers over the past three years — about 60 percent for defamation, 25 percent for copyright infringement and 10 percent involving privacy.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Cox said. “Bloggers are being asked to write checks. The threats against bloggers are very real. The costs are very real.”
Other groups offer help, including NowPublic.com – a site that gathers photos, video and news tips from the public and distributes them to news organizations, including the Associated Press. NowPublic, funded with venture capital, offers resources for contributors and helps them learn to police themselves, said co-founder Michael Tippett.
“A lot of our members are aspiring journalists,” Tippett said. “They’ll get half of it right. We’ll push them to getting all of it right.”
MJ Tam, who has blogged about motherhood for eight years and attended the Chicago workshop, said she worried about how far she could go in rating baby products.
“I just want to make sure I’m doing the right thing,” Tam said. “How far can I take criticism? What’s considered libel? I need those basics.”