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Hannah Turlish
History teacher
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Lesson Plans

All Speech is Created Equal?

Investigative Reporting

Investigative Reporting

Hannah Turlish of Riverdale Country School in Bronx, N.Y.

Hannah B. Turlish
Riverdale Country School
Bronx, N.Y.

Title: All Speech is Created Equal?

Description of School and Students

The unit will be taught in an 11th-grade U.S. history course at a private high school in New York. Average class sizes are about 15 students, but all activities would be just as effective in larger or smaller classes. The unit is also appropriate for use in journalism and American literature courses.

Generative Topic

Investigative journalism

Generative Objects

  • Jacob Riis photographs
  • Taped segment of a current TV investigative piece

Understanding Goals

  •  Essential or Guiding Question
    • What is investigative journalism?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • What role does the press play in fostering social change?
    • How has investigative journalism changed over time?
    • Who/what helps or hinders the job of the investigative journalist?
    • Has investigative journalism created problems regarding privacy?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

The Progressive Era marked the first time that a significant number of writers and artists used their skills to uncover social ills that had been previously unknown to or ignored by the more privileged members of society. New printing press technology made the emerging wide-circulation newspapers an effective way to spread the findings of the “muckrakers”, and novels like Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle" went into such horrifying detail that even President Roosevelt could not simply dismiss this new kind of journalism as sensationalist and unethical. Students should understand this relationship between the press and social change, both at the turn of the century and today, 100 years later. The unit will be a valuable exercise in exploring the methods investigative journalists use as well as ethical questions, pressures, and the serious mistakes that can and have been made for the sake of a story.

[note: To keep the unit of study flowing smoothly, it helps to assign "The Jungle" ahead of time – i.e., to read over summer or winter vacation.]

Activity 1

Begin the unit by showing the class several Jacob Riis photographs. Ask students to describe the story that each photograph tells. As an in-class writing exercise, have them write a news article that might accompany one of the photos in a Progressive-era paper. Discuss the meaning behind the term “muckraker,” a term that was coined by Theodore Roosevelt and that has remained in our vocabulary. For a modern example of investigative journalism, show a taped TV “consumer watchdog” segment and discuss the impact of current investigative efforts.

Activity 2

After reading "The Jungle" and textbook chapter(s) on the Progressive Era, students should see the link between Sinclair’s novel and the food purity laws that were passed soon after the book’s publication. Have students write an essay which discusses the struggles of Jurgis and his family, the conflict between human welfare and human greed, and the implications of Sinclair’s advocation of socialism at the end of the novel. Allow class time for students to work in groups of 2 or 3 to generate ideas and critique each other’s thesis statements.

Activity 3

Have a brainstorming session to come up with a list of current problems that could be the topics of investigative pieces. Discuss the challenges that a journalist would have to face while getting the whole story, and the techniques which might be used to get around those challenges (hidden cameras/tape recorders, concealing one’s identity, etc.). Have students consider potential legal issues. After the class has a clear understanding of what modern investigative journalism involves, have students create their own piece of investigative journalism about a school or neighborhood issue (in groups of three or four). This can in either in video format or as a newspaper article with accompanying photographs. Students will present their story to the class; if possible, have a representative from the school administration and the town come in and watch the presentations and respond to the issues raised.

Activity 4

Show the movie "All the President’s Men" to acquaint students with perhaps the most famous case of investigative journalism in history (before viewing the film, be sure that students are sufficiently familiar with the Watergate scandal). Discuss the risks that Woodward and Bernstein took and the immediate and long-term impact that their story had. Emphasize the idea that costs always accompany the benefits of uncovering the truth.

Activity 5

Have students read about the CNN Operation Tailwind fiasco (a particularly good article is Peter J. Boyer’s “The People’s Network,” The New Yorker, Aug. 3, 1998). Discuss the pressures that today’s journalists are under to come up with a story and the problems that this pressure creates for the field of journalism and for the public that depends upon it for its news. To conclude the unit, students do a written assessment (in their journals) of investigative journalism’s role in society — i.e. do the benefits of work like "The Jungle," Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post articles, and current TV exposés outweigh damaging examples like Operation Tailwind?

Activities 1 and 5 should take one 60-minute class period. Activity 2 will vary according to the students’ need for prewriting discussion and peer critique, but should take roughly 2 class meetings. Activities 3 and 4 should take 2 or 3 class sessions.


Students will be evaluated on the basis of:

  • formal essay on "The Jungle" (Activity 2)

  • production and presentation of investigative piece (Activity 3)

  • expression of ideas in news article and journal entry (Activities 1 and 5)

  • participation in class discussions (Activities 1, 4, and 5)


  • Jacob Riis photographs
  • Tape of current TV investigative piece
  • Upton Sinclair, "The Jungle"
  • film All the President’s Men
  • Peter J. Boyer, “The People’s Network,” The New Yorker, Aug. 3, 1998 (or other article on Operation Tailwind)
  • video camera for students’ stories

Hannah Turlish’s lesson plan, "Digging for Gold or Dirt?" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1998, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 252.

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