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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

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.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel formerly co-chaired the committee.

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