I want students to have expectations of journalistic standards, which continue to evolve over time but still tend to embody some sense of duty to citizens, the regular folks like you and me. I think it’s important for students to appreciate that tradition of watchdog journalism and how it relates to our democracy. Honestly, this watchdog role is the reason most of us put up with today’s scurrilous news media. No matter how much they annoy us, we count on journalists to watch out for us, holding the powerful and negligent accountable even if the law fails to do so. This is why we respect the institution of journalism, defend its reputation, but also hold it accountable. I want students to know how to hold their journalists accountable.
One way is to teach students what good journalism looks like, and introducing them to watchdog journalism is a good way to start. American history is full of examples of the news media catching crooks and exposing malfeasance. Some of these examples are well worn and I wonder if they lose their impact with students over time. I want students to know about the glorious triumphs (and miserable failures) of the news throughout our country’s history, but I don’t want students thinking that important journalism is a thing of the past. Current examples of watchdog journalism can be politically fraught or too complex for younger students to grasp.
To bring watchdog journalism into focus with students, show them Kate McGee’s reporting for NPR and WAMU in Washington, DC, who found that a third of DCPS high school graduates in 2017 did not meet official graduation requirements. The story is both heartbreaking and infuriating, detailing the extent to which school administrators and teachers failed to educate a significant portion of their student population, passing them through the system despite egregious, disqualifying gaps in course credit and attendance records.
What a great story to discuss with students. The civic mechanics are not as complicated as, say, tax reform or gerrymandering and it is a perfect example of journalism performing a public good. I’d like to ask students:
- Why did NPR and WAMU report this false graduation rate? Why did they think it was important? Do you think its important?
- How did the reporters discover the story? How did they convince people that the graduation fraud was real news?
- What might have happened if this information had stayed secret? Would it have come out another way?
- Does it matter that some students didn’t really meet graduation requirements? What does a diploma really mean, anyway? How would you feel if you found out your school was giving out unearned diplomas?
- Who are there victims in this story? Heroes? Villains?
- What are the consequences of NPR and WAMU’s reporting this story?
I’m excited to take a closer look at this story with my students. It has a political neutrality that is hard to come by these days (assuming most students agree that it’s not good to graduate students who are unprepared, and that it’s certainly not good to lie about it). Even better that the story takes place in a familiar school setting. McGee has exposed major systemic flaws in DCPS schools and hopefully this will lead to positive change. She has also given educators who teach news literacy a current and compelling example of investigative journalism that holds elected officials accountable in service of American citizens.