Verifying Breaking News | Facing History & Ourselves
Reporters conducting an interview.

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.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism


About This Lesson

What challenges do breaking news scenes—especially ones as fast moving and chaotic as Ferguson—present to journalists and consumers of information? In this lesson, students review news accounts about the killing of Michael Brown from the initial days following the shooting to get a sense of the ways that complex stories unfold over time. The journalists in the featured video help to illuminate the idea that it is not only extremely challenging for consumers to sort fact from fiction during a breaking news story, especially one that elicits such strong emotional reactions, it is also challenging—and at times impossible—for journalists to do so.

Note: As this lesson begins to focus on actual accounts from Ferguson, you may want to acknowledge that this content can be emotional and challenging; consider revisiting the classroom contract and earlier discussions about the DJ Jay Smooth video.

  • How do news stories, details, and facts unfold and change over time?
  • How can creators and consumers of news and information verify the credibility of information about an event?
  • Students will be able to reflect on how the details about an event may change over time and require patience on the part of both journalists and news consumers to get right.
  • Students will be able to understand the challenges facing journalists as they try to cover complex, fast-moving events while managing the pressures of a 24-hour news cycle.
  • Students will be able to appreciate the importance of—and develop strategies for—verifying news and information.

This lesson is designed to fit into Verifying Breaking News and includes:

  • 3 activities 
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout
  • 3 readings

On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by 28-year-old Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The news broke on Twitter. Moments after the shooting, @TheePharoah tweeted, “I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG.” Several minutes later, he tweeted a picture of two police officers standing next to Brown’s lifeless body lying facedown in the street. An hour after the shooting, a crew from St. Louis television station KMOV arrived on the scene ahead of Ferguson police detectives. Later that afternoon, the story had begun to go viral on the Internet, large crowds had gathered at the crime scene, and a spontaneous memorial began to take shape.

Prompted in part by the attention the shooting was receiving on social media and in part by the community reaction, local journalists began closely covering the situation. National news outlets soon sent reporters to Ferguson as well. Within three days, Ferguson was on the front page of major newspapers across the country. By August 15, the story was international.

As with any developing story, journalists had to attempt to counter their own biases and separate rumor from fact by seeking out a variety of sources—eyewitnesses, relatives, community members, police officials—who were in a position to confirm or comment on various aspects of the altercation. 

However, professional journalists were not the only people reporting on the unfolding events: residents, witnesses, and activists were all using social media to help tell the story and share details (both verified and unverified) and other claims, perspectives, and opinions that they felt were important. The challenges for journalists were considerable as they tried to confirm as many details as possible as quickly as possible while tweets and other social media posts spread rapidly.

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Lesson Plans


In the previous lesson, students experienced firsthand the challenges of reporting on a situation they were able to witness. In the case of Ferguson, where the news initially broke on Twitter and no journalists were on the scene, the challenges were different. Reporters tried to verify the events surrounding the death of Michael Brown, attempting to gather information from many sources amidst a chaotic, ever-shifting scene covering several square blocks. Students will analyze several news reports from the days immediately following the shooting to review how the story unfolded.

  • Give each student a copy of three sources:
  • Ask students to first read through the sources quietly. Allow time for private journal reflection in response to the contents. Ask students: How do these sources align with what you remember or think you know about Ferguson? What surprises you? How would you describe your emotions as you read?
  • In pairs, ask students to analyze each document separately using the Verification Evaluation graphic organizer. Other questions to consider include:
    • Are there any important sources or voices that are missing from the piece?
    • How does this document make you feel?
  • After students have gone through each document separately, have them compare the documents. What is similar? What is different? How does the information differ between the sources, and how do the language and tone differ? How is your understanding of the situation different when you consider all three documents together as opposed to each one separately? How do these sources help you flesh out the timeline you began for the events surrounding Ferguson?

Now that students have had a chance to read and compare some of the initial news coverage from Ferguson, use the “Verifying the Story” video to help them understand the challenges that journalists faced as they tried to confirm details about the shooting and its aftermath.

  • While they view the video, encourage students to take notes on the challenges of verifying information and the strategies and methods journalists use to overcome those challenges. (Student can also follow along with the transcript available immediately below the video.)
  • After viewing, ask students to share their observations about the concept of verification in journalism. Why is verification important? How should journalists deal with potentially important details that cannot be verified? Should they simply leave these out of their reporting, or is there another approach? What do students think good sourcing looks like in a news report? What sources were cited in the news reports they read, and which, if any, were missing at this stage of the story’s development? (For example, very little information was available from the police.) How does verification and good sourcing help to minimize bias?
  • Tell students: Several journalists mentioned the tendency of readers to form their opinions early on and to often ignore updates that challenge those opinions. Why do you think this happens, based on what you’ve learned so far, and what can we do to avoid that tendency in ourselves?
  • Ask: What can we as consumers of news and information learn from journalists’ strategies and apply to our own consumption of news and information, especially during breaking news events? Looking back at the articles we examined, how might you have tried to verify what you read?

Finish the lesson by asking students to reflect privately in their journals about how what they’ve learned today might change the way they consume and share news. How have the lessons and videos they’ve encountered thus far made them think differently about the news and information they get via social media? Thinking back, do they have any questions about the information they received and shared regarding Ferguson when the events were unfolding?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

The handouts below, available in English and Spanish, are used in the Verifying Breaking News lesson plan.

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