Lesson 11 of 11
One 50-minute class period

Citizen Watchdogs and the News

From the Unit:

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?

Learning Objectives

  • 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.


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.


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. 



  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?


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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