The Essentials of Journalism

This collection of guides explains the basic principles and elements of good journalism.

The Protess Method of verification

David Protess is president of the Chicago Innocence Project, a nonprofit investigative reporting group that exposes wrongful convictions and other problems of the criminal justice system. He previously served for 12 years as director of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University, where his students developed evidence that freed 12 innocent prisoners, five from death row.

Protess used the cases as a tool for teaching journalism students the importance of verifying presumed facts. Among the lessons: Assume nothing is true. Go directly to the source. Don’t rely on just the authorities or officials. Touch all bases. Be systematic.

Each year Protess received thousands of letters from people on death row who claimed wrongful conviction. He chose a handful and assigned his students to examine them.

“Maybe the best way to understand my method is what I do for the students when they come into my class,” Protess explained in an interview. “I draw a set of co-centric circles on the blackboard. In the outermost circle are secondary source documents, things like press accounts … The next circle in is primary source documents, trial documents like testimony and statements. The third circle in is real people, witnesses. We interview them to see if everyone matches what’s in the documents. And at the inner circle are what I call targets – the police, the lawyers, other suspects, and the prisoner.”

The concentric circles of sourcing

“You’d be surprised how much is in the early documents. There is a lot there, especially early suspects, the police passed by.”

In 1999, the appeal of Anthony Porter was one of the cases Protess used to introduce his aspiring journalists to the value of skepticism.

At the inner circle of the Porter case, Protess and his students found Alstory Simon, a suspect the police quickly overlooked. Crosschecking the documents and sources, Protess and his students found a nephew who had overheard Simon confess to the murder on the night of the killings.

Simon was ultimately convicted of the crime for which Porter was about to die. On March 19, 1999, Anthony Porter became the fifth prisoner wrongly convicted of murder in Illinois freed by the work of Protess and his students.

Verification and accuracy

A journalist’s first job is to “get it right.” But how? These guides help you understand how to think about accuracy and practice verification.

All Guides

Journalism Essentials: Introduction

What makes journalism different than other forms of communication?

What is the purpose of journalism?

The elements of journalism

What does a journalist do?

The journalist as a ‘committed observer’

The theory of the interlocking public

The lost meaning of ‘objectivity’

Understanding bias

Tools to manage bias

Journalism as a discipline of verification

The Hierarchy of Accuracy

The Hierarchy of Information and concentric circles of sources

The Protess Method of verification

What makes a good story?

Good stories are important and interesting

Boring versus engaging stories – what’s the difference?

Good stories prove their relevance to the audience