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Poynter at SXSW: The ins and outs of Twibel

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the second in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

Tweets can form the basis of a defamation lawsuit the same as if they were published in another form. However, though Twitter has been around since March 2006, the first defamation trial involving the service wasn’t decided until earlier this year — almost eight years after Twitter’s debut. 

Does that mean the Twittersphere has been immune from libelous content? Unfortunately, no.

The informal nature of social-media conversations makes Twitter a ripe environment for spreading potential falsehoods, resulting in plenty of opportunities for defamation claims.

Defamation is divided into libel (print) and slander (non-fixed medium), but both have essentially the same elements:

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Some wooden cubes forming the word law, in front of a gavel. Digital illustration. (Depositphotos)

Who’s a journalist and other digital issues: media lawyers weigh in on #wjchat

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How to overcome your fear of FOIAs

For many journalists, FOIA is a scary four-letter acronym, sometimes stifling investigations before they even begin. This guide aims to demystify Freedom of Information Act processes, giving you the tools and confidence to ask for the information you need to write your next investigative story.

Why FOIA requests are so helpful

FOIA is both a federal and state-based law granting individuals and organizations the right to access most governmental agency records. As such, it’s a critical tool that helps journalists in their reporting and writing. Public-records requests are essential to supporting the journalistic values of holding the government accountable and ensuring openness.

Via FOIA, the government provides the information you need; however, the research and analysis associated with the information obtained is left up to you.

What information is available via FOIA

FOIA promises public access to government public meetings and records, which generally includes all documents, files and records made or received in connection with the transaction of official business. Read more

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Disputes over crime maps highlight challenge of outsourcing public data

Colin Drane is an unlikely warrior in the fight for open government.

An inventor and TV infomercial producer, Drane spent much of his career marketing products like the Trunkanizer  for organizing car trunks, a toy called Bendaroos, and Invisi-lift self-adhesive breast enhancement pads.

Six years ago, Drane started a different kind of business – a company called ReportSee, which operates the website SpotCrime.com. The site obtains publicly available crime records from police agencies and graphically displays them on colorful maps.

Drane says the site attracts a million views a month from people curious about the burglaries, shootings, and other bedlam in their towns. The site makes money through advertising and from partnerships with television stations and other media organizations.

“Its primary appeal is folks involved in neighborhood watches and people who want to know what’s going on their communities,” Drane said in a phone interview. He said the information on SpotCrime, which typically is culled from police department logs and incident reports, can make communities safer. Read more

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Twitter users face libel claims for spreading false accusation

The Economist | Guardian | New York Times
The BBC falsely accused retired British politician Alistair McAlpine of child sexual abuse, and paid a hefty £185,000 fine to settle the matter earlier this month. But now McAlpine is also pressing for compensation from thousands of people who tweeted about the BBC story at the time.

In the United States, such a charge would be unlikely to stick. Our laws, for instance, may protect claims made with an honest and reasonable belief that they were true at the time. British law is notoriously friendly to claimants, such that foreigners sometimes try to get British jurisdiction for their libel suits even when the case has little connection to the country.

About 1,000 tweeters implicated McAlpine, and another 9,000 retweeted their messages, The Economist reports. McAlpine’s lawyers have told those with fewer than 500 followers they can make amends with an online apology and a donation to charity. Read more

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Latest Supreme court leak was unusual, though not unprecedented:

We don’t usually get an account of how the court reached its decision so soon after the decision is reached. Those types of leaks tend to come years later to the enterprising reporter who is working on a book, not an evening deadline.

Whether the Roberts leak is accurate, of course, we have no idea. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not in a category of its own. Supreme Court leaks are rare, but they are hardly unprecedented. The court, just like our other public institutions, is made up of political animals. We shouldn’t be shocked when they act that way.

Related: SCOTUSblog details in 7,000 words how CNN, Fox got Health Care ruling wrong

Jonathan Peters, Slate

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Why journalists call Trayvon Martin death a shooting, but not a murder

News organizations have used a variety of words and phrases to describe Trayvon Martin’s death: Fatal shooting. Shooting. Murder.

We used the word “murder” in the headline of a story I wrote about journalists’ coverage of Martin and George Zimmerman, who shot him. Some readers pointed out, though, that it’s premature to say Martin was the victim of murder. Even though Zimmerman admitted to the shooting, he has not been charged. Read more

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As Supreme Court begins new term, how to explain justices’ silences, interruptions, and ‘aggressive’ questions

As journalists, we focus first on getting the facts right. We pay less attention, though, to the way we describe people. Descriptions help us understand people, but they can also lead to misinterpretation if they’re not supported with context.

This is especially true in coverage of politicians and the Supreme Court justices, whose 2011-2012 term begins today. Because these leaders make influential decisions, we describe how they speak, how they interact with others, and how they come across when making decisions.

But how fair and accurate are the descriptions we use?

“When we’re describing someone, we can pass judgement on that person without even knowing it … It’s just automatic,” said Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.”

In a phone interview, Tannen addressed some words that journalists have used when describing the justices: Aggressive. Read more

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What journalists need to know about libelous tweets

Rumors that CNN had suspended Piers Morgan due to the News of the World phone hacking scandal spread on Twitter earlier this month, sparking an important discussion about whether journalists need to verify information before tweeting.

The incident, which we wrote about on Poynter.org, prompted commenter S.J. Dahlman to wonder: Can tweets be libelous?

It turns out they can be.

“Statements on Twitter can form the basis of a defamation lawsuit just as much as any form of publication,” explained David Ardia, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina. “It’s just sometimes with new technology, it takes a little longer for people to start to take what they read seriously enough — and more importantly for lawyers — to pay enough attention to start to bring lawsuits based on it.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about whether tweets are libelous. It’s easy to think, for instance, that Twitter is ephemeral and that libel laws wouldn’t apply. Read more

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States Deal with Impact of Death Penalty Drug Shortage

There is a worldwide shortage of a drug called thiopental sodium, which is a key ingredient of the “cocktail” states use when they lethally inject inmates. The shortage is causing states to reconsider when and how to execute condemned inmates.

In Kentucky, the governor set an execution for Sept. 16 but held off signing two other death warrants because there are not enough drugs on hand to do the job.

And in Oklahoma, there is a legal battle about whether the state can execute an inmate with a substitute drug after officials learned their supply of thiopental was out of date and potentially not pure enough to do the job.
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