Lesson 11
Duration:
1 class period

Citizen Watchdogs and the News

Essential Questions

  • What is a citizen watchdog? How do citizen watchdogs differ from journalist watchdogs?
  • How can citizen watchdogs be responsible, fair, and effective in their civic actions?
  • What rights and responsibilities do citizen watchdogs have?

Overview

The Internet and digital media present unmistakable opportunities and benefits to the public but also significant challenges. This lesson focuses on the ways that digital media, and especially mobile media, are shaping the relationship between the people and the press and expanding the role that citizen watchdogs can play in a democracy. In this lesson, students consider the definition and responsibilities of “citizen watchdogs,” develop a culminating set of strategies or guidelines for combating confirmation bias as they consume and create news and information, and consider the very powerful role of social and mobile media as tools for social change.

Learning Goals

  • Students will be able to identify the role, responsibilities, and key characteristics of citizen watchdogs.
  • Students will be able to summarize the core strategies for combating confirmation bias.
  • Students will be able to demonstrate an understanding of the role of journalism in a democracy and our responsibilities as consumers and producers of credible news and information.
  • Students will be able to formulate a plan to act as a citizen watchdog, identifying issues to focus on, methods for documenting, verifying, and sharing information relevant to these issues, and civic actions that can have a positive impact on them.

Context

Increasingly, activists and everyday citizens are engaging in so-called watchdog activities that, at one time, were almost entirely the province of professional journalists. These activities include capturing video and images of breaking news events, publishing information for a mass audience, curating and disseminating third-party information, and publicly commenting on issues and events. Media critics and scholars disagree about whether this activity should be referred to as journalism or by another term, such as playing a “citizen watchdog” role, because some believe the term “journalist” should be reserved for trained practitioners who aspire to meet a set of journalistic standards.

The News Literacy Project defines a citizen watchdog as any citizen who documents an injustice or other wrongdoing and shares that evidence with an audience, including journalists. This might involve anything from documenting problems with city services (such as a failure to fix streets, unequal access to resources, unfair treatment of a particular community, etc.) to encounters with the police and illegal or unethical practices by local politicians or businesses. 

Materials

Activities

  1. Define “Citizen Watchdog” and Identify Key Strategies for Combating Confirmation Bias

    In the lesson The Importance of a Free Press, students explored the role and importance of a free press in a democracy. With the dominance of the Internet and ubiquity of mobile media, citizens today also play an increasingly important role in creating and sharing information, often directly with the public.

    • Define and discuss the term “citizen watchdog.” Is everyone who shares information on social media a citizen watchdog? Why or why not?
    • Have students view the video “Combating Confirmation Bias.”  As they watch, ask students to make note of strategies that can help combat confirmation bias. (You may choose to distribute the transcript for reference.)
    • After viewing, use the Wraparound strategy to capture all the tactics for combating bias shared in the video or encountered in earlier lessons. Have each student contribute one concrete action they can take—or one thing they can stop doing, one thing they can start doing, and one thing they can continue doing—to combat confirmation bias in themselves or others.
  2. Develop a Deeper Understanding of the Role of Citizen Watchdogs

    The final video features journalists and experts discussing the ways that social media and the Internet are changing the relationship between people, the press, and the news.

    • View “Citizen Watchdogs and the Future of News.” Ask students to make note of what the speakers say about the impact of citizen watchdogs, what they are (and aren’t) able to accomplish, and the relationship between citizen watchdogs and the press. (You may choose to distribute the transcript for reference.)
    • Debrief the video. What role did social media and citizen watchdogs play in the information aftermath of Michael Brown’s death and the unrest in Ferguson? What did they accomplish?
    • In small groups, have students create a job description for a citizen watchdog, including at least five tools, resources, strategies, and/or skills that ideal “job candidates” will possess or be able to use. Give each group a few minutes to share their job descriptions and to answer questions.
    • Provide time for students to reflect in their journals on what they have learned. How has social media helped to awaken the public to important events and issues over the past few years? How does this make you think about your own social media use and your role as both a consumer of information and a communicator?
  3. Write a Culminating Essay

    To wrap up this unit, return to its central question: What is the role of journalism in a democratic society?

    • First, revisit the question as a class. Given everything students have learned over the course of this unit, how would they respond?
    • Then, as an in-class exercise or homework assignment, have students write an essay based on one of the following prompts:
      • What do you think are your responsibilities as a consumer, sharer, and creator of news and information? What changes will you make after what you have learned in this unit, and why? What challenges do you expect to face, and what steps will you take to address those challenges?
      • If you were to play a citizen watchdog role, what issues would you seek to spotlight in your community, local area, or country? How would you go about documenting, verifying, and sharing relevant information about these issues in order to create positive change? What actions would you try to take, and what outcomes would you hope to generate?

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