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Lesson Plan September 6, 2019

Exploring Techniques for Investigative Journalism

Image from Adobe Stock. 2019.
Image from Adobe Stock. 2019.


Students will be able to...

  • Identify, demonstrate and apply knowledge of investigative journalism techniques when analyzing an in-depth news story. 


Read the following situation:

Imagine you are driving through your neighborhood in a car with slightly tinted windows. You are not wearing your seatbelt, and suddenly you see police car lights behind you, so you pull over. The police officer asks you why you aren't wearing your seatbelt. You acknowledge this mistake and try to hand them your license and registration, but the police officer says, "You seem nervous—are you nervous?" You don't feel nervous, but the police officer is now insisting they smell marijuana in your car, which you do not have, and says they must search your vehicle. What do you do?

Many people in the Baltimore, MD region have faced this situation. Up to and throughout the 2010s, the Baltimore Police Department's elite squad, the Gun Trace Task Force, headed by Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, stopped and searched many vehicles without just cause.

In this lesson, you will explore The Baltimore Sun's investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force, and learn about the techniques journalists use to conduct investigative reporting projects. 

Introducing the Reporting:

UNESCO defines investigative journalism as "the unveiling of matters that are concealed either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances - and the analysis and exposure of all relevant facts to the public."

This activity involves reading three excerpts from "Cops and Robbers," The Baltimore Sun's investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force. The first excerpt will be explored by the class together; the remaining excerpts will be explored in small groups. The objective of this activity is to explore the techniques and tools that journalists use in investigative reporting. You will also practice summarizing key details of a news story. 


The following resources are essential to the activity below. Provide the appropriate amount of copies to your classroom to complete the activity. 

Excerpt I

Excerpt II

Excerpt III

Comprehension Questions

Graphic Organizer - Student Edition

Graphic Organizer - Teacher Edition


Part I

1. Read Excerpt I independently. While reading, fill out the"Comprehension Questions" worksheet. 

2. Come back together as a class and review your responses to the comprehension questions worksheet. Revise your answers where appropriate.

3. Fill out this graphic organizer to keep track of the evidence provided by The Baltimore Sun in this investigative story. Refer to excerpt 1 text as necessary.

4. Reflect and answer the following discussion questions:

  • According to the author(s), why do you believe the Baltimore Police Department (PD) ignored the "red flags" that they saw in the daily conduct of Sgt. Wayne Jenkins? Cite specific evidence from the text.
  • Using the text, are "plainclothes units" ethical? Are they useful to police departments? What are controversies that surround them?
  • According to the text, why did Baltimore PD staff defend the use of aggressive tactics?

Part II

Now that you have completed the first part of this activity, it is time to do independent group work!

Divide into two equal groups. One group will explore Excerpt II and the other will explore Excerpt III. Follow the same instructions as above, skipping step #2. Once finished, each group should respond to the discussion questions below.

Excerpt II Discussion Questions

  • According to the text, what role did identity play in the stopping and searching of particular vehicles and their passengers? 
  • According to the text, why do you believe people cooperated with officers requests to search without just cause?
  • Cite quotes from the text that show the difference between what police officers learn during formal police training and what tactics they actually use in the field. 

Excerpt III Discussion Questions

  • According to the text, how did Sgt. Wayne Jenkins feel about his illegal actions and subsequent arrest? How would you feel if you were in his position?
  • Reflect on Donald Stepp's role. Think about his story and how he became a major figure in this narrative. What would you do in his position?
  • According to the text, why did Andrea Crawford allow Sgt. Wayne Jenkins to search her living space? What kind of power dynamic was present so that she made that choice?


1. Share the following with the class: 

  • A brief summary of the excerpt you read.
  • Three main ideas or details that stick with you from the reading.

2. Discuss the following questions as a class:

  • How does each excerpt give a different perspective on the investigation?
  • Refer to your graphic organizer—how did The Baltimore Sun gather their evidence. What evidence did you find most useful or convincing?
  • How do these three excerpts work together to create a complete narrative of this investigation?

Extension Activities:

1. Research and Presentation: Knowing Your Rights

As we can see in D'Andre Adams interaction with law enforcement officials, it is important to have a nuanced understanding of your rights, while prioritizing your safety in exercising them. 

1. Research your rights. A good resource to get you started is the ACLU's "Know Your Rights: Stopped by Police" webpage, which gives an in-depth explanation of many situations wherein you may interact with law enforcement and what your rights are in those moments. Keep a detailed document of important information from other resources you may explore. 

2. In small groups, create skits based on your research. Identify a scenario in which a person interacts with law enforcement. Once the scenario comes to a critical point and the person should "know their rights," pause and offer a multiple choice question for the audience to answer: "What are your rights in this situation?" Make sure that you clearly state the answer for the audience. 

3. Plan an event for your school and/or community to share your "know your rights" research. Consider performing your skits at this event. 

2. Conduct an Investigative Project of Your Own  

Now that you have explored an investigative journalism project from The Baltimore Sun, it's your turn to report on law enforcement and justice in your town. How do you investigate? Who should you interview? What places do you need to visit to gather more information?

These are questions that investigative journalists ask themselves. Below you will find interview subjects and locations to explore for your investigative project. It is up to the discretion of the journalist—you!—to identify the safest and most effective option for your investigation. Evidence in the form of questions, observations, and notes will inform your narrative about law enforcement and justice. After conducting your research and onsite interviews, draft a news story and consider publishing it in your student paper or class newsletter, or presenting your findings for your school and or community.

Option 1

Research your local police department online. Where is it? How many police officers work there? What resources do they have? Research news coverage of your police department online. What does the news media show you? What source does it come from, and is it reliable? What positive coverage can you find, and what negative coverage can you find?

Option 2

Invite a police officer to your classroom to speak about their job. Prepare questions in advance about training that police officers receive and tactics they use. Set aside time for a whole class dicussion, a question and answer period, and possibly even a one-on-one conversation for any additional questions you have.

Option 3

Conduct an interview with an officer of the court, like an defense attorney or prosecutor. Prepare questions in advance and be sure to take diligent notes and ask clarifying questions when needed.

Option 4

Attend a community forum or an organizational meeting on law enforcement. Take notes on the discussion—how do members feel about law enforcement? What kind of action are they proposing? As a journalist, refrain from participating in the meeting discussion. However, take note of interview subjects you would like to approach after the meeting discussion. 

Option 5 

Some police departments hold community hours where police officers organize events like games and food that community members can attend to spend time with police officers. Attend and keep a series of mental notes as you spend time in this space. What do you see? What topics are you discussing with police officers? What impression do you have of the environment?

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Bringing Stories Home

Bringing Stories Home