A sound knowledge of media law should underpin a journalist's work every day, informing the content, tone and method of their writing.

It is impossible to work as a journalist and not encounter media law issues, according to Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the UK’s National Council for the Training of Journalists.

Online archives, internal emails and chat rooms frequently cause problems for web publishers, who are just as accountable for libel and defamation as print publishers - particularly because of the speed and scope of web publishing.

Most journalists study media law as part of their training at university, or when undertaking vocational courses such as those run by the NCTJ.

The Journalists' Training Forum conducted research into training and recruitment in 2002, led by Professor Ian Hargreaves of Cardiff University's journalism department. Quoting from the research, Joanne Butcher told dotJournalism that around 64 per cent of journalists have NCTJ training, which covers media law in detail.

"Media law is an essential part of the job," she said. "Pre-entry students don't realise how much law is involved. Defamation and contempt make up two of the six exams that they will have to take."

As well as full-time study, several organisations in the UK offer short courses, typically costing between £250 and £400 for one day's training. These can be an excellent way for working journalists to get to grips with the basics of media law, said Ms Butcher.

"The challenge is to keep up to date with the law - and these type of short courses are very good as a short, sharp update," she said.

London-based Communication Skills Europe (CSE) offers a typical one-day course, covering libel and defamation, copyright, confidentiality and the Official Secrets Act according to the law in England and Wales. The course is taught by Robert Hutchinson, an experienced journalist and former publishing director for Jane's Publishing. Libel and defamation make up most of the day, with the aim of helping delegates to evaluate the scale of risk in what they choose to research, write and publish.

Crucially, many libel cases would not be brought if journalists had observed the basic principle of presenting a balanced argument and speaking to both sides of the fence. Journalists should ask three important questions before publishing work: Is it true? Can I prove it? And will they sue us?

As with much media law, the key is common sense; do not publish anything you could not prove in court.

Whether you are a staff writer or a freelancer, you are personally liable in any libel case, along with the editor and publisher. Merely having quoted someone accurately is not a defence; what your interview subject has said has to be true.

Even casual use of phrases such as 'thought to be' and 'generally believed' can be problematic, said Mr Hutchinson. In a libel case the defendant would then face the substantial task of proving what the majority of the public believed.

The course also covers common mistakes made with trademarks - including the difference between champagne and sparkling wine. Web publishers can be particularly exposed by these kind of errors as lawyers now run searches online for trademarked names.

Knowing how to handle complaints - and threats of libel - is another important skill. It is essential not to apologise, which could be interpreted as an admission of guilt, and many journalists even forget to take the details of the caller, the article and the objection.

Knowledge of copyright law and moral rights empowers journalists to take control of their own work. Unless you make a formal agreement with a publisher about the use of your work, the rule of 'implied licence' means that a publisher can only use your work once. That would mean that if your work was re-published in an online archive, as well as in print, your copyright would be breached.

Under the term 'moral rights', journalists have the right to be credited as the author of the work, the right to object to the editing of their work and the right to stop anyone else claiming authorship of it. Many contracts, on regional newspapers for example, ask journalists to waive these rights when working for them.

The seven-hour day is necessarily heavy on facts and note taking, but by the end of the day delegates are able to compile a list of practical steps that they can take at work to help stay out of trouble.

Annie Cree, deputy editor of the John Lewis in-house publication The Gazette, studied the CSE course in early March. She had expected a rather 'dull and dusty' session, but found that by personalising the subject with references to her own publication, the tutor underlined the connection between the theory and the practical implications of media law.

The CSE one-day course is good value for money, said Ms Cree, who now plans further study of internet law.

"It's new and almost uncharted territory in terms of media law, but with our heavy reliance on the web it's something we all need to keep a close eye on."

Some organisations now offer courses focusing on internet law and others, such as the BBC's three-day 'law and the courts' course, include working visits to Magistrates, Crown and Coroner's courts.

The NCTJ is working to develop its continued professional development programme (CPD) to provide more advanced media law training to experienced journalists, which will also help them to keep up with frequent changes in the law.

• For more information on training courses in the UK, see the dotJournalism training diary:

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