Report from fall conference ‘Behind the Lines: A Reporter’s Path to the Truth’

From new media law to fact-checking political ads to Twitter as a reporting tool, the Idaho Press Club’s fall conference this year brought Idaho journalists timely and useful training.

The conference, put on by the Press Club’s Southwest Chapter, took place Sept. 25 in downtown Boise. Here are some of the tips the presenters passed along to the assembled journalists:

(@carsonjw on Twitter) discussed how to break news and interact with the audience through such tools as Twitter and Facebook. Walker said social networks can be an important way to find eyewitnesses and primary sources, though journalists always must authenticate quotes from social media and check out claims. It’s also useful to mine the community as part of your beat.

“Be transparent about who you are,” when setting up a social media account for reporting use, Walker advised. He noted that the 2010 AP stylebook has four pages on social media.

Walker advised creating a strategy and setting goals: What do you want from the account? What do users get from the account? How often/what will you tweet? How can you engage your audience? He also said it’s important to develop a voice, and find ways to personalize your communications.

Ideally, Walker said, social media will build brand loyalty and drive conversations to your news site and your advertising.

(@tweetmcg on Twitter) discussed copyright law on the Internet. Sample letters for requesting permission to use copyrighted material are all over the Internet. Whether material used without copyright permission falls under the “fair use” doctrine for news reporting is dependent on how “transformative” the use is – McGrath advised that reporters link to the original work, instead of re-posting a copyrighted article, a practice called “scraping.” Just use an excerpt, and then link.

At least one organization is now buying copyrights to newspapers’ content, then trolling the Internet for violations and suing.

Whether or not linking can create a liability for defamation has not yet been decided by the courts, McGrath said. Edits that materially alter the meaning of the original cancel your immunity for content posted by others, she said, but legally you’re OK to edit or remove comments on your blog posts or stories.

Lori Robertson of made a very timely presentation on fact-checking political ads – as many of the reporters in the room were working on just that in the run-up to the November elections. launched in 2003 for the 2004 presidential election, and is a project of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. It was founded and is headed by Brooks Jackson, who pioneered ad watch stories at CNN. is nonprofit and its content is free; the organization fact-checks political ads in major races across the country and posts the results.

For reporters working on their own ad watch stories, Robertson advised asking the campaign for support or backup for the claims made in the ad. “This backup might actually debunk the claim for you,” she said. She also advised reporters to refer to the exact wording of the claim and “remind yourself: What exactly am I debunking?”

Common suspect claims include those claiming a record, the largest, the highest or the worst, she noted. Also, context matters. Sometimes the report the ad cites to back up its claim is itself incorrect.

The 1st Amendment protects false advertising by politicians, Robertson said. But it also protects a free press – one that can point out what’s true and what’s not.