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Media as a Watchdog

45 min

Essential Question 

  • What significant role(s) does the media play in democracy?  

Guiding Questions 

  • How does the media hold the government accountable? 
  • How does investigative journalism help fulfill the media’s role as a linkage institution?


  • Students will explain how the media’s coverage of government actions or inactions is important to a well-functioning democracy.  


Student Resources: 

Teacher Resources: 

Facilitation Notes 

  • If this is the first time covering the principles and virtues, more time may need to be dedicated to the lesson.  



  • Post the following quote for students: “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”        
  • Ask students to summarize and explain what they understand to be relationship between the press and people according to this quote.  
    • Transition: Many people understand one role of the press, or media, in a democracy is to keep the people informed. Once people are informed, they can make decisions or demand action.  

Scaffolding Note: Be mindful of students’ historical background knowledge while completing the next part of the Engage section. 

  • Ask students what examples they can recall from their studies of history where the press has informed society of happenings the writer/publishers thought the public needed to know so that action would be taken.  
    • Examples might include “muckrakers” like Upton Sinclair writing about the meat packing industry, Jacob Riis writing about poverty-stricken cities, Ida Tarbell and Standard Oil business practices, or Ida B Wells writing about lynchings (the quote from above comes from her).  
    • Students may mention the Spanish American War and yellow journalism, guide them through how yellow-journalism and muckraking differ. Asking questions such as “What is the purpose?” or “What impacts were they hoping to make?” will help students distinguish between the two styles.  
  • Transition: The examples you gave were great reminders that the press can provide information to people and the government that leads to social or economic reforms. For the rest of the lesson, we will look at more modern examples of the media fulfilling the role of “watchdog.” There is an understanding the press serves as a watchdog because it notifies the public there is something going on within the government the people should know about. The examples we look at today show the media linking the people to the government for accountability purposes. 


  • To explore the media fulfilling the role as watchdog, there are sets of journalists and the topic for students to use for the assignment. 
    • Murrey Marder/McCarthyism 
    • David Halberstam/Vietnam 
    • Seymour Hersh/My Lai Massacre 
    • Daniel Ellsberg/Pentagon Papers 
    • Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein/Watergate 
    • Florence Graves/Congressional Accountability 
    • Charles Hanley/ Abu Ghraib 
    • James Risen and Eric Lichtblau- Warrantless Wiretapping 
    • Dana Priest and William Arkin/ U.S. Intelligence Agencies 
    • Barton Gellman/ NSA Surveillance  

Scaffolding noteTeachers can choose for students to complete this individually, with partners, as small groups, using the journalists/topic pairings that are best suited for their classrooms and students.  

  • Assign students journalist(s) and topics then distribute the Watchdog Media Handout. Students will research the work the journalist produced, how/of what that work informed the public, decide how/why this work is connected to a founding principle or civic virtue, and any resulting action.  
  • Transition: As a democracy with an educated populace, it is important for all to uphold the principles and virtues on which the nation was founded and continues to function, which includes the people that hold government positions and those in the press. As you learn today, you will be considering which principles and or virtues investigative journalism was acting on or holding the government accountable to. 

Scaffolding note: Students may need to be reminded that the assignment is less about the news story details and more about the story being shared with the public for accountability purposes. 

  • Give students time to work.  

Assess & Reflect 

  • Ask students the following reflection questions: 
    • What boundaries are needed between the press, the government, and the citizens for a healthy democracy?  
    • Now that more people have access to more media sources as well as instantaneous access to information, how do you feel that has affected the “watchdog” role of the media? 
    • Select a quote from the options provided. 
      • Ask students to summarize and explain what they understand to be the relationship between the press, government, and citizens according to this quote.  
      • How does it relate to the work they specifically did today?  


  • Students create a formal display piece of their research and the class create a gallery walk. 
  • Students could research Supreme Court Case rulings, state laws (shield laws for example) or individual presidents’ relationships with the press related to watchdog/investigative journalism.  


Student Handouts

Related Resources