The Essentials of Journalism

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

The Hierarchy of Information and concentric circles of sources

You can categorize the information you possess in a series of concentric circles.

The innermost circle is the information you know first-hand. You’re standing on the corner and see a dump truck run a stoplight and crash into a bus.

The next circle is the information you have second-hand. You’re having coffee at an outdoor cafe and someone runs up to get help, saying she just saw a truck hit a bus.

The outer-most circle is the information that’s third-hand. You’re in the newsroom and get a call from someone at the cafe, relaying news that they heard a truck has hit a bus.

Most of the information journalists deal with lies in the second or third circles. But most facts are found that within the first innermost circle, usually from a participant, an eyewitness or from physical evidence.

This does not mean the closest perspective is the most truthful or even the most accurate. Eyewitness descriptions of crime suspects, for example, are often unreliable. Nor does embedding a journalist with a platoon necessarily provide a true picture of a larger war.

But failing to find and verify basic facts is equally problematic. Bad facts produce inaccurate assumptions. In the hierarchy of information, a story that rests on inaccurate assumptions will eventually collapse.

So with each concentric circle of information you move outward, your guard needs to be ever higher for verification.

Basically, it comes down to a hierarchy of information. In terms of facts, the stuff that is closest to an eyewitness account is better than that which is second-hand.

Case study: The Gabby Giffords shooting

Concentric circles – and the best sources of the most accurate facts – will likely change as a story unfolds.  Sometimes it can happen very quickly – a matter or minutes or hours – while for other stories it may occur over a period of days or even weeks.

There were, for example, at least three different sets of concentric circles in just the first few hours after a gunman shot Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, six of whom died, at a constituent meeting in January 2011 in a Tucson suburb.

The first set of circles was at the scene, a parking lot outside a supermarket. Those closest to the event, participants and eyewitnesses, provided the most accurate accounts of what actually occurred (security camera footage reportedly exists but has never been made public).

They saw the shooter fire at Giffords and then the crowd, apparently randomly. Witnesses said the shooter stopped to reload but dropped the loaded magazine to the sidewalk where a bystander grabbed it. Another bystander, meanwhile, clubbed the back of the assailant’s head with a folding chair. Then a 74-year-old retired Army colonel, who himself had been wounded, tackled the shooter to the ground and others piled on the man until police arrived. A Giffords’ staff intern applied pressure to the gunshot wound on her forehead and made sure she did not choke on her blood while a married doctor and nurse who were shopping in a nearby store set up triage and begin treating the most seriously wounded.

These descriptions were vivid, emotional, and very personal. Accounts from participants at the center of a concentric circle are often intense and narrowly focused – confined to what they saw, and felt, and did.

Farther away, an employee at a nearby store didn’t see anything but said he heard “15 to 20 gunshots.”

The first journalist on the scene was Peter Michaels, the news director of the local NPR affiliate, who’d been alerted by his wife, who was shopping at a nearby store.

Michaels got close enough to observe “at least five bodies, adult bodies, strewn on the sidewalk in front of the store underneath the sign Gabrielle Giffords Congress on your Corner. I saw the congresswoman slumped in the corner with an apparent gunshot wound to the head. She was bleeding down her face. She had a red dress on. Seconds later, they took her on the gurney.” Based on Michaels’ account, NPR became the first national news organization to report the breaking news.

During the first hour of the shooting, information came from sources in or near the concentric circle at the crime scene. The details were about “what,” “when,” and “where” – specific facts that were reported, on the whole, accurately.

But then the story moved to another location, the hospital where doctors were furiously working to save Giffords’ life. This second concentric circle was centered in an operating room and the best sources – her doctors and those close relatives and staff to whom the doctors might talk – could not be reached.

News organizations thus begin to rely on sources at the distant fringes of the circle, in one notable instance distant by a couple thousand miles. They also recycled sources from the shooting scene and began to speculate on what those eyewitness accounts inferred, that Giffords was seriously, perhaps mortally, wounded.

An hour after the shooting, NPR reported, incorrectly, that Giffords had died.

Other news organizations picked up the bulletin and repeated it on air and online, most citing NPR. Fox News and CNN went a step further, saying they had “matched” the NPR story from their own sources.

So what happened? According to a report by Alicia Shepard, then NPR’s ombudsman, editors begin relying on second or third-hand sources. In other words, information that came from people far removed from the center of the concentric circle or from the wrong circle entirely.

One report came from a local NPR reporter (not Peter Michaels) who quoted “sources within the Pima County Sheriff’s department.” The other was an unnamed person in a congressional office who was contacted by an NPR congressional correspondent and “confirmed” that Giffords was dead.

Thus, said Shepard, “NPR had two sources, though neither was identified in any way, and should have been.” Moreover, “A critical question for each source was: ‘How do you know that?’ It turns out that neither source had accurate, first-hand information. The congressional source had heard it in a meeting on Capitol Hill, where undoubtedly rumors and half-truths were flying around.”

Shepard quotes the local NPR reporter, Mark Moran, as saying his information came from “law enforcement sources, a another reporter from his news organization, and very early reports on” “I felt supremely confident in the two sources I had, but unfortunately those sources were relying on other sources, almost like a game of telephone tag,” said Moran.

An hour and a half after the shooting, the hospital confirmed that Giffords was in surgery, but alive, and later doctors and her husband briefed reporters.

As the story progressed, a third concentric circle involved the shooter and police. Who was the suspect and were others involved? What were his motives? What physical evidence existed? Why might this have happened? And, was there anything that might have been done to prevent or mitigate the carnage?

The most authoritative sources for this third phase of the story were police investigators and prosecutors, who were more readily available to journalists. While withholding some information, they could at least confirm or deny what reporters were hearing from others or uncovering on their own.

As time went on, this third set of concentric circles became institutionalized – and was in fact codified – in the legal process during which the suspect was declared competent to stand trial, eventually plead guilty, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

One can undoubtedly find other concentric circles in this example. With each, however, the point is the same. People closest to the center of the concentric circle are likely to have the best “facts” for that phase of the story. However, as the story evolves the circles change and so to do the best sources of fact.

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