Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Ideas 002: students as investigators

Posted in Ideas for the future of news by Adam Westbrook on November 18, 2009

Idea: the Innocence Project

By: David Protess & Northwestern University

This idea for the future of news has been around for 10 years, but I had never heard of it.

But when I did, just last week, it blew my socks off with its simplicity, and lateral thinking.

Under the leadership of experienced investigative journalist David Protess, students at Northwestern University rake through criminal convictions in their region. They hone their investigation and data mining skills checking the facts.

“Our goal,” writes Protess,  “is to expose and remedy wrongdoing by the criminal justice system.”

They focus on murder cases where the defendant has been sentenced to execution.

And to this day they’ve freed 11 men. Five of them have been saved from the chair.

Now that beats a 2:1 any day.

One of them was Anthony Porter, exonerated just 50 hours before being executed.

This isn’t so much an idea which has any business revenue potential obviously, although there’s a chance it could get a decent grant here and there. But what a way to get students engaged during their studies! And what a way to teach them the most difficult skill of all: investigation.

J-courses around the world: you don’t have to do cold convictions (in the UK for example, that would be – sadly – particularly hard); you could check council finances, plough through rejected asylum applications, fact-check all the decisions involving wind turbines approvals or rejections; the list is endless.

On top of its legal accomplishments, the Innocence Project has “sparked a debate” about capital punishment, and invoked the rath of lawyers.

Freeing Porter in 1999, the governor of Illinois George Ryan said “a system that depends on young journalism students is flawed”. But if, as some fear, a void will be left by the cutbacks at papers over the next 10 years, then this could be one way to fill some of the holes.