“Storm Lake” discussion guide on the importance of local journalism

This guide serves as a companion for adult learners and community members viewing the PBS documentary Storm Lake, a film about the struggles of sustaining local journalism and shows what these newsrooms mean to communities and American democracy overall. The guide has three main components: pre-viewing, during viewing and post-viewing activities.

The pre-viewing activities use one or more essential questions to focus on viewers’ engagement with news and their opinions about its relationship to their community and to American democracy. The essential questions are:

  • What is news?
  • What role does news play in your family members’ lives? In your community?
  • Is news important in a democracy? Why or why not?

The during viewing portion includes discussion questions that can be completed whole or in-part, individually, or in small groups. These questions include:

  • Is profit a motivation for the [Cullen] family? Why or why not?
  • Art Cullen: “A pretty good rule is that an Iowa town will be about as strong as its newspaper and its banks. And without strong local journalism to tell a community’s story, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.”
    • a. In your own words, what point is being made in this quote?
    • b. Do you agree? Why or why not?
    • c. How does this quote fit into your definition of news and its role in the community?

The post-viewing activities return to the essential questions raised prior to viewing and seek to extend engagement with local journalism. These options include keeping a news log for a week and evaluating a source (log included in the guide), interviewing family or friends about their news habits, engaging directly with local news organizations on social media or writing a letter or email to an editor with a suggestion for a story.

News Goggles: Emily Hoerner, Chicago Tribune

News Goggles annotations and activities provide news literacy takeaways on timely topics. These resources feature examples of actual news coverage, including full news reports, headlines, breaking news alerts or excerpts.

This video originally appeared in the Nov. 1, 2021, issue of The Sift® newsletter for educators, which explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses journalism and press freedom topics and examines social media trends and issues. Read archives of the newsletter and subscribe here. Stock music in this video was provided by SoundKit from Pond5.

Watchdog journalism holds the powerful to account and plays an important role in democracy. This week, we talk to Emily Hoerner of the Chicago Tribune about her recent story on public restroom access and how “Chicago’s government has failed to provide the public with easy, consistent access to free toilets.” So, why is the watchdog role of the press important, and what can that role look like?

Sometimes, Hoerner said, watchdog journalism calls attention to issues that people are already aware of, but that “nothing has happened around” — such as the public restroom story.

It can also reveal and expose problems “that are happening behind the scenes,” she said, adding that watchdog reporting means taking “a look at how systems are working, whether systems are broken and who those systems may be harming.”

We also consider the role of public records in investigations as we discuss how this story came together. Grab your news goggles!

Note: News Goggles appears in the first issue of this newsletter each month. You can find previous News Goggles annotations and activities in this guide, or in NLP’s Resource Library under “Classroom Activities.”

Resource: “Democracy’s Watchdog” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom).

Dig deeper: Use this viewing guide for the featured News Goggles video and article as students consider how watchdog journalism can shine a light on issues of public importance.

Have feedback about this resource? Or an idea for a future News Goggles? Please share it with us at thesift@newslit.org.

image of Ida B. WellsIn this lesson, students learn about the vital role the First Amendment protections of free speech and a free press play in American democracy using four case studies of notable investigative (or “watchdog”) reporting. This jigsaw-style lesson has students join an “expert” group to focus on one specific case study, then join their “jigsaw” group to share what they learned with their classmates. Jigsaw group members then document the details of each report and reflect on the role the First Amendment played in each of these historic pieces of journalism.

This lesson makes the following essential questions available:

  • What five freedoms are protected by the First Amendment?
  • How do the five freedoms work together to strengthen American democracy? For example, how do the freedoms of speech and assembly work together?
  • In what ways can a free press act like a watchdog on behalf of the public?
  • If the press sometimes acts like a watchdog, what is it protecting?
  • Who watches the watchdogs?
  • In what ways can investigative journalism bring about social or political change?

This news literacy classroom activity is suggested for grades 7-9 and 10-12+.

Key terms:

  • First Amendment
  • Watchdog role
  • Multiple sources
  • Eyewitness source
  • On-the-record source
  • Anonymous source
  • Context
  • Fairness
  • Free speech

Connections with other NLP resources:

About classroom lessons:

NLP’s lesson plans cover core news literacy subjects that help provide educators with the resources to design their own units. Many of these lessons have a corresponding version on NLP’s e-learning platform, Checkology. You can find activities, quizzes, infographics and posters that complement many lessons in NLP’s resource library.

News Goggles: Watchdog vs. clicks? Comparing two Sacramento Bee news reports

News Goggles annotations and activities offer news literacy takeaways on timely topics. These resources feature examples of actual news coverage, including full news reports, headlines, breaking news alerts or excerpts. 

This News Goggles resource originally appeared in a previous issue of The Sift newsletter for educators, which explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses journalism and press freedom topics and examines social media trends and issues. Read archives of the newsletter and subscribe here. 

Journalists at the Sacramento Bee, a major daily newspaper in California, say they are pushing back against a controversial proposal that could tie their pay to the page views and number of clicks that their online stories attract. News of the proposal sparked swift criticism online , especially among journalists, who condemned the policy as “demeaning,” “shameful” and “so appalling.” A petition to “Stop Pay-for-Clicks” at the Bee has attracted more than 1,800 signatures as of Oct. 26, 2020.

In a letter dated Sept. 30 and posted to Twitter on Oct. 19, members of the Sacramento Bee News Guild — a group of unionized Bee employees — wrote that such a policy would “create incentives to pursue clickbait headlines over in-depth, accountable journalism that serves the community.” In this edition of News Goggles, let’s examine the controversy at the Bee by comparing two news reports mentioned in the letter. The first, according to the letter, represents the kind of headlines that generate reader complaints and do little to serve the newsroom’s regional audience, while the other exemplifies local watchdog reporting. Grab your news goggles. Let’s dive in!

 Featured News Goggles resource: These classroom-ready slides offer annotations and questions on this  topic. 

Discuss: How do “clickbait headlines” drive web traffic? Why is web traffic important? Why would journalists raise concerns about a “pay-for-clicks” model of performance reviews? How does the Taco Bell news report compare to the marching band coverage? In what ways can watchdog journalism that holds the powerful accountable bring about change? How can such journalism, which can be more expensive to produce, be sustained? 

Related: 

Resource: “Democracy’s Watchdog”  (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom) 

Have feedback about this resource? Or an idea for a future News Goggles? Please share it with us at thesift@newslit.org. You can also use this guide for a full list of News Goggles from the 2020-21 school year for easy reference. 

News Goggles: The New York Times editor’s note

News Goggles annotations and activities offer news literacy takeaways on timely topics. These resources feature examples of actual news coverage, including full news reports, headlines, breaking news alerts or excerpts. 

This News Goggles resource originally appeared in a previous issue of The Sift newsletter for educators, which explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses journalism and press freedom topics and examines social media trends and issues. Read archives of the newsletter and subscribe here.  

News reports sometimes convey additional information to readers in the form of editor’s notes. Such notes may briefly explain how a news report has been updated or corrected. Some describe how a particular aspect of a story was handled and why. Others are longer and typically published alongside major articles or investigations to provide further context, clarity and background on a news organization’s coverage. In this edition of News Goggles, we’re going to examine an editor’s note published online on Sept. 27, 2020, that accompanied a New York Times investigation into President Donald Trump’s taxes and finances.

The note — written by Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times — offers a chance to see various news literacy concepts in action, including watchdog reporting, protecting sources and the First Amendment. Grab your news goggles and let’s consider the purpose of this note.  

 Featured News Goggles resources: Download our full annotations in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. Also, these classroom-ready slides run through important takeaways for a discussion. 

Discuss: Do you agree with the Times’ decision to publish the “president’s personal tax information”? Was it ethical for the Times to do so? Why does Baquet refer to the First Amendment in his editor’s note? What other rights are protected under the First Amendment? 

Resources: “Democracy’s Watchdog” and  “The First Amendment” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom). 

Have feedback about this resource? Or an idea for a future News Goggles? Please share it with us at thesift@newslit.org. You can also use this guide for a full list of News Goggles from the 2020-21 school year for easy reference. 

News Goggles: ProPublica investigation

News Goggles annotations and activities offer news literacy takeaways on timely topics. These resources feature examples of actual news coverage, including full news reports, headlines, breaking news alerts or excerpts. 

This News Goggles resource originally appeared in a previous issue of The Sift newsletter for educators, which explores timely examples of misinformation, addresses journalism and press freedom topics and examines social media trends and issues. Read archives of the newsletter and subscribe here.  

Public records often serve as the basis for investigative and watchdog reporting that holds the powerful accountable. Let’s examine how records obtained by ProPublica under public information laws shaped a Sept. 14, 2020, investigation by the nonprofit news organization. This story spotlights concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, focusing on emails that highlight “the meat industry’s influence and access to” government officials. ProPublica’s findings offer an example of the watchdog role journalists play in a democracy.

We’ll take a closer look at the use of records alongside elements of fairness and transparency in the newsgathering process. Grab your news goggles! Let’s go! 

 Featured News Goggles resources: Download our full annotations of the ProPublica report in Microsoft Word or as a PDF. Also, these classroom-ready slides pinpoint the big takeaways for a discussion with students. 

Related: A Washington Post report first published on Sept. 17, 2020, also made use of documents obtained through a public records request. Read the beginning of this story, which focuses on the U.S. Postal Service’s operations during the pandemic. How does this use of public records compare to ProPublica’s investigation? Were the records obtained in the same way?  

Idea: In the United States, teach students about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Then show them how to file a FOIA request for a piece of public information about a topic that affects them or their communities (such as school budgets). For local and state records, try using the letter generator from the Student Press Law Center. For federal FOIA requests, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers some helpful guidance  

Resource: “Democracy’s Watchdog”  (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom). 

Have feedback about this resource? Or an idea for a future News Goggles? Please share it with us at thesift@newslit.org. You can also use this guide for a full list of News Goggles from the 2020-21 school year for easy reference.