On the afternoon of August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death in a confrontation with Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. Within a week, the shooting became a flashpoint for a national discussion about race, policing, and justice in the United States.

Most people learned about the events we will discuss in this unit through various forms of media, including news reports, blog posts, social media, and viral rumors. The fact that Ferguson has now become one in a series of controversial police killings making national headlines only amplifies its relevance.

Essential Question

What is the role of journalism in a democratic society, and how can we become responsible consumers and producers of news and information in the digital age?

Teaching This Unit

This unit is made up of 11 lessons, which feature video interviews with award-winning journalists and scholars, analysis of news coverage and images, and a range of activities designed to develop students’ critical thinking, literacy, and social–emotional skills and competencies.

Early lessons establish a foundation for exploring the news and news literacy through a reflection on the impact of identity and bias on the way we respond to news and other kinds of information. The middle section uses examples of news reports and social media posts about Ferguson, raising important questions about such news literacy topics such as sourcing and verification, the role of social media, and the role of a free press in democracy.

Moving beyond the events in Ferguson, the concluding lessons examine some of the challenges and opportunities that today’s dynamic media landscape presents to the public for meaningful civic engagement. Whereas in the past the means to distribute information widely were held almost exclusively by professional journalists, today the power to create and disseminate information is literally in the hands of the people. While quality journalism serves as a watchdog for democracy, citizens can play a parallel or complementary role by disseminating information that exposes and highlights injustice.

Before you begin teaching this unit, we suggest that you:

  • Review all the videos, images, articles, and other multimedia resources so that you are familiar and comfortable with the content;
  • Review the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson (sources include “Ferguson, one year later: From a city to a symbol” from the St. Louis Post Dispatch and this interactive timeline from The New York Times);
  • Make sure you are familiar with the definition and common platforms of social media, although this is also an opportunity to allow your students to share their knowledge.

In addition, because this unit deals with sensitive and difficult topics, we suggest that you review our thoughts about creating a reflective classroom. The unit includes many opportunities for student reflection through journaling. You may want to read about effective strategies for using journals in the classroom.

Learning Goals

Students will be able to: 

  • Investigate the choices and challenges facing journalists as they report on a story, including the importance of verification, sourcing, and other journalistic practices and standards.
  • Understand the role that confirmation bias, stereotyping, and other cognitive biases plays in how we interpret events, news, and information.
  • Explore the impact of social media on the traditional news cycle, and understand the role it can play in influencing public opinion and the press.
  • Develop critical thinking and news literacy skills to help students find reliable information to make decisions, take action, and responsibly share news through social media.
  • Consider their role as citizens in a democracy and their responsibilities as civic participants and citizen watchdogs.



Democracy & Civic Engagement

Introduction to the Unit

Learn more about how to use this unit to deepen your student's understanding of the role of journalism and social media in breaking news stories.

Lesson 1 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Preparing Students for Difficult Conversations

Students establish a safe space for holding sensitive conversations, before introducing the events surrounding Ferguson, by acknowledging people's complicated feelings about race and creating a classroom contract.

Lesson 2 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Impact of Identity

Students explore how identity impacts our responses to other people and events by examining a cartoon and analyzing an opinion poll from a week after Ferguson.

Lesson 3 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Confirmation and Other Biases

Students define explicit, implicit, and confirmation bias, and examine why people sometimes maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory information.

Lesson 4 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

How Journalists Minimize Bias

Students experience the challenges to reporting objectively by writing a news piece and watching a video about how journalists counteract bias in the newsroom.

Lesson 5 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Verifying Breaking News

Students evaluate the differences among news accounts about Ferguson, develop strategies for verifying news and information, and understand the challenges facing journalists as they cover complex, fast-moving events.

Lesson 6 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Social Media and Ferguson

Students explore the role of social media in Ferguson, apply information verification strategies to social media posts, and develop strategies for becoming critical consumers and sharers of social media.

Lesson 7 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Power of Images

Students examine how identity and biases can impact how individuals interpret images and experience the challenge of selecting images to represent news events, particularly connected to sensitive issues.

Lesson 8 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement


Students explore the potential negative impact of images through the social media protest #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and develop a decision-making process for choosing imagery to represent controversial events.

Lesson 9 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Importance of a Free Press

Students review the First Amendment, understand the importance of a free press, and consider how that freedom can conflict with other societal needs through journalists’ experiences in Ferguson.

Lesson 10 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Hands Up, Don't Shoot!

Students review the US Department of Justice report, revisit how confirmation bias impacts our understanding of events, and consider how to bridge the gap in understanding that often surrounds events like Ferguson.

Lesson 11 of 11
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Citizen Watchdogs and the News

Students identify the responsibilities of citizen watchdogs, summarize strategies for combatting confirmation bias and responsibly consuming and sharing news and information, and complete a culminating essay.

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