New NLP lesson focuses on the watchdog role of a free press


This school year, participating NLP students are engaging in a new lesson that explores the importance of a vigilant free press by bringing to life four case studies of notable investigative reporting.

As Cristo Rey New York High School students discussed a 60 Minutes report about a black man wrongly convicted of armed robbery by an all-white jury in Texas and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole, they began to make connections between the First Amendment and the watchdog role of a free press.

Without that investigative report, a student concluded, “Nobody would have known or cared.”

These students were among the first to dig into NLP’s newest classroom lesson, introduced this fall. Titled “Democracy’s Watchdog,” this lesson explores the importance of a vigilant free press by bringing to life four case studies of notable investigative reporting:

  • Nellie Bly’s pioneering undercover reporting in 1887 about a hospital for the mentally ill.
  • The Washington Post’s iconic coverage of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.
  • The 60 Minutes report in 1983 that led to overturning the wrongful conviction of Lenell Geter.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s groundbreaking investigative series in 1988 that exposed racially biased mortgage-lending practices.

The lesson employs the “jigsaw method,” in which students are initially each assigned to two groups: “expert” and “jigsaw.” First, students are divided into four expert groups to learn as much as possible about a single case study. They then reassemble to share what they learned in their jigsaw groups, made up of experts from each of the four case study groups. This enables students to master a significant amount of material in a short time through peer teaching.

The lesson ends with the entire class reflecting on how the outcomes in each case — and democracy itself — would have been different without a free press.

Students have embraced this lesson. At DePaul College Prep in Chicago, students subsequently told their teacher that they wanted to watch All the President’s Men, the movie depicting the Watergate reporting of the Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

In New York City, students “found the cases very interesting and enjoyed discussing with their classmates the reliance of each case on the First Amendment,” said Stephanie Mueth, an English teacher at Cristo Rey. “It was an intriguing lesson for the students, which allowed them to think critically and creatively.”

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