Today, we’re diving into an essential media literacy skill that every student should have in their toolbox—lateral reading. In our current digital landscape, unreliable information is just a click away. With the internet saturated in data that ranges from credible facts to outright fabrications, it’s crucial to sift through the noise and discern what’s trustworthy.
According to CIVIX, “False and misleading information is rampant online, and people lack the skills and motivation to determine what to trust.” Clearly, if we’re going to build the next generation of informed citizens, we need fresh approaches to teaching digital media literacy and source evaluation.
Now, I don’t just preach; I practice what I recommend. To ensure that you have a well-rounded perspective on this topic, I’ve gathered information from some of the most authoritative sources in the field. One of the frameworks that I find particularly useful is the SIFT approach, sourced from the Check, Please Starter Course. I’ll delve more into this four-step strategy later in the post.
Also, Michael A. Caulfield’s book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers” (available for free) is another invaluable resource that I’ve referred to. Caulfield offers a thorough breakdown of what lateral reading is, why it’s a game-changer in how we consume information, and how it can help students develop strong fact-checking skills.
If you’re interested in diving deeper into this topic, make sure to check out the ‘References and Further Readings’ section at the bottom of this post. I’ve included everything from research-based online courses to must-read books, all aimed at enhancing your understanding and skills in this critical area.
What is lateral reading?
Lateral reading isn’t your usual dive-deep-into-one-source kind of reading; it’s more like web sleuthing. Instead of meticulously scouring a single article or resource for information, you’re stepping out—hence “lateral”—to check out multiple sources simultaneously. It’s about verifying facts and assessing the credibility of an article by cross-referencing it with other, more authoritative sources.
Lateral reading, concept and the term as the News Literacy Project stated, were “developed from research conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), led by Sam Wineburg, founder and executive director of SHEG.”
In Michael Caulfield’s book “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers,” he delves into the concept of “lateral reading,” which contrasts sharply with how we traditionally engage with print media. According to Caulfield, when we pick up a book or a journal article, we usually already have some context about its credibility or relevance. You know the newspaper you’ve subscribed to, you’re aware of the author of the book you’ve picked up, or you’ve chosen a journal article because it’s in a reputable journal or cited by someone you trust.
The web is a different beast altogether. When you land on a webpage, you’re often clueless about its reliability or the authority of the author. Most people’s instinct is to navigate through the site, maybe check the “About” page or look at author bios. Caulfield suggests this is the wrong approach for two reasons. First, if the site is dodgy, then its own self-description will probably be dodgy too. Second, even a credible source will naturally present itself in the most favorable light.
So, what’s the fix? Caulfield promotes “lateral reading” as the solution. This involves stepping away from the site at hand to see what other, ideally more reputable, sources are saying about it. Lateral readers open multiple tabs and conduct searches about the author, the site’s ownership, and other related commentaries. They piece this information together to get a well-rounded view of the site they’re investigating.
Only after this external validation do lateral readers dive deep into the original content. By then, they’ve got a much clearer sense of whether they can trust the information presented. They’re not just confined to the site’s own narrative; they have a broader perspective that accounts for various viewpoints and reputations.
In a nutshell, lateral reading is about external verification. It’s not simply about understanding the content on a single page but about understanding where that page sits in a wider network of information. It’s a holistic approach that lends itself incredibly well to the fragmented, complex landscape of online information.
The SIFT Framework
Developed in the “Check, Please! Starter Course,” this approach simplifies the complex web of fact-checking into four digestible “moves.” I particularly love how the SIFT approach streamlines the process and keeps it really practical. So, let’s unpack these moves:
This first move is all about pause and posture. The instant you land on a webpage, it tells you to STOP. Two facets are in play here. First, before diving into the content, ask yourself: Do I know this source? Is it trustworthy? If not, cue the other SIFT moves. Second, if you feel like you’re spiraling down a rabbit hole while checking facts, STOP again. Remind yourself what your objective is, recalibrate your strategy, and avoid getting overwhelmed. I’ve always told my students, you have to know when to step back to see the bigger picture, and this move really emphasizes that.
Investigate the Source
Next, we investigate. But don’t worry, you don’t need to go full Sherlock Holmes. The point is to know what you’re about to read before you read it. Whether it’s an article from a Nobel laureate or a promotional video by a business, understanding the source’s expertise and agenda is paramount.
Find Trusted Coverage
Sometimes, you’re not concerned with the source itself, but the claim it’s making. This move advises you to seek other trusted reporting or viewpoints on that claim. It’s akin to lateral reading, which we just talked about. Let’s say an article claims that a certain teaching method is revolutionary. You shouldn’t just take their word for it. Hop over to other reputable educational journals or websites to see if this claim holds water. Different perspectives can offer a richer, more nuanced understanding.
Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media Back to Original Context
Last but not least, this is the deep-dive move. It’s all about tracing information back to its origin to understand its full context. We’ve all seen how things can get twisted when removed from their original setting, right? This move ensures you’re getting the whole story, not just a convenient snippet.
Indeed, the SIFT framework is a toolkit I wish more people had in their critical thinking arsenal. It’s straightforward, yet each move calls for a certain level of intellectual engagement that, when done consistently, can become second nature. I’ve found it particularly useful in evaluating educational research and tech tools, where the landscape is always shifting and it’s easy to get lost in hype and misinformation.
Lateral Reading versus Vertical Reading
Both Lateral reading and vertical reading have their merits, but knowing when and how to use each is crucial, especially in a digital age where misinformation can spread like wildfire.
Lateral reading is like being a detective. Instead of digging deep into a single source (say, an article or a website), you’re hopping around multiple tabs, checking the credibility of the source against what other reputable sources are saying. It’s a holistic approach to verifying information.
Michael A. Caulfield, in his book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers,” explains lateral reading as an essential skill, especially when encountering unfamiliar websites or authors. By cross-referencing with authoritative sources, you can gather a composite understanding of whether a site or piece of information is trustworthy. So, lateral reading helps you to not only validate facts but also understand the context, biases, and reputation of the sources you’re consulting. Trust me, I’ve lost count of the number of times lateral reading has saved me from citing an unreliable source in my research.
On the other hand, vertical reading is what most of us were taught in school. You find a source and read it top to bottom, perhaps even taking notes or highlighting important sections. While this method works great for deep dives and thorough understanding, it’s not the best for quick fact-checking or source verification. Relying solely on vertical reading leaves you vulnerable to the biases, inaccuracies, or even fabrications present within that single source.
When it comes to vertical reading, your level of trust is often dependent on what that single source tells you. This can be problematic, especially if the source has an agenda. For example, if I were looking into educational technologies for classrooms and only read articles from one ed-tech company, I’d be limiting myself to a very narrow perspective.
Why Not Both?
The two approaches are not mutually exclusive; they’re actually complementary. For instance, after lateral reading has helped you identify a reliable source, a deep vertical read can offer the depth and detail you need. In my own work, I often use lateral reading to screen for credibility and then switch to a vertical approach for in-depth understanding, especially when I’m reviewing educational tools or diving deep into scholarly articles.
Bottom line? Knowing when to use lateral versus vertical reading is a skill in itself—one that’s incredibly important for educators and students alike. And hey, if you’ve ever found yourself on a webpage, unsure of its credibility, give lateral reading a go. Your future self will thank you for not falling for misinformation.
Examples of lateral reading
Over the years, I’ve found that illustrating the application of a theory or technique can be eye-opening. So, let’s get into some real-world examples of how you could use lateral reading to navigate the maze of information on the web.
Example 1: The Miracle Cure
Let’s say you come across an article claiming that a specific natural remedy can cure a chronic illness. Now, instead of taking that article at face value or checking the ‘About Us’ section of that website, you open a new tab. You trace the sources it references and you also search for medical reviews or studies related to that natural remedy. You might also look into what reputable health organizations have to say about it. This is lateral reading in action—you’re cross-referencing the initial claim with multiple other sources before making any conclusions.
Example 2: News Story on a Hot-Button Issue
Imagine you read a news story about a current political issue, but the tone of the article seems extremely biased. Don’t stop there. Open more tabs to look at how multiple other news outlets are covering the same story. Compare the viewpoints, facts, and sources cited. Doing this helps you understand not just the event but also the different perspectives surrounding it. This is essential for nuanced thinking, something I always advocate for, both in and outside the classroom.
In wrapping up, I can’t emphasize enough how vital lateral reading is for our students and, honestly, for all of us in this digital age. False and misleading information is so pervasive online that we owe it to ourselves and the next generation to become more discerning digital citizens. As highlighted by CIVIX, the lack of skills to sift through the mire of online information is concerning. We’ve got to change the status quo, and fast.
What I particularly appreciate is the practicality of the SIFT framework from the Check, Please Starter Course. It’s not just theoretical; it’s actionable, offering us a step-by-step guide to separate the wheat from the chaff. Similarly, Michael A. Caulfield’s book “Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers” serves as a fantastic resource.
Lateral reading isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a habit, a mindset, and a skill that takes continuous effort to cultivate. But the rewards are immense: a better understanding of the world around us, and the ability to think critically and independently. Trust me, making lateral reading second nature is worth every tab you’ll ever open.
References and further readings
If you’re keen on making the internet a more reliable place for information, or if you’re an educator looking to empower the next generation, these resources are a great place to start. From courses that offer real-time updates to books that provide long-lasting wisdom, there’s something for everyone interested in honing their fact-checking skills.
Check, Please! Starter Course: A deep dive into the SIFT framework that’s perfect for those who want an actionable guide to fact-checking. This course not only gives you the theory but also arms you with practical examples to better grasp the concept. The course continually updates to include recent examples that make the learning process ever so engaging.
Stanford History Education Group’s Lesson Sequence on Lateral Reading: This comprehensive resource guides teachers through a set of structured activities to teach lateral reading. The lessons introduce students to reliable resources for lateral reading like Wikipedia, news stories, and fact-checking websites. The focus here is on training students to cross-verify information by checking what other websites say about a source, rather than taking the source’s own word for it.
The Ctrl-F Project by CIVIX: Specifically designed for high-school students but entirely suitable for early college-goers as well, this curriculum focuses on honing digital literacy skills.
“Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers” by Michael A. Caulfield: This book is a goldmine of practical advice and guidelines. It doesn’t just teach you about lateral reading; it empowers you to become a discerning reader in the digital world.
Snopes: The OG of fact-checking websites, Snopes has been debunking myths and verifying facts since 1994. It’s an excellent resource for lateral reading exercises.
Media Literacy Now: This organization offers various resources for educators, including curriculum guides and lesson plans.
The News Literacy Project: This provides educational programs that teach students how to separate fact from fiction in the digital age.
The Stanford History Education Group: They offer a free curriculum that includes various types of exercises aimed at improving civil online reasoning.
Critical Media Project: This platform provides free media literacy resources and lesson plans that focus on ideologies, power structures, and social issues.
The books below will help you and your students grasp the critical importance of digital literacy and fact-checking in an age where misinformation can spread like wildfire. I highly recommend them to anyone interested in going beyond the surface of digital literacy.
“The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols: This one delves into how the decline of expertise is affecting our ability to discern facts from fiction. A fascinating read that explains why teaching critical digital literacy has never been more crucial.
“Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling: This book is a wake-up call. It gives you valuable insights into how our perspectives are skewed due to various biases and how data can help us see the world more clearly.
“Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil: It offers a unique perspective on how big data and algorithms affect our ability to find reliable information. It gives you a new lens to evaluate digital data.
“The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption” by Clay A. Johnson: This one is a nutrition guide, but for information. It helps you understand the importance of consuming high-quality information and how to differentiate it from the low-quality bulk that’s out there.
“The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You” by Eli Pariser: This book is all about how algorithms affect the information we see online, making it even more critical to have strong fact-checking skills.
“Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday: This one takes you behind the scenes of media manipulation, from the perspective of someone who’s done it. It’s eye-opening and makes you think twice about the information we consume.
“Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” by Cal Newport: This book can help you declutter your digital life, which, believe it or not, can improve your ability to focus on reliable sources and ignore the rest.
“The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads” by Tim Wu: This book offers insights into how your attention is being bought and sold online. Knowing how the ‘attention economy’ works can be beneficial when you’re trying to filter out irrelevant or misleading information.
“Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World” by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West: This is an all-encompassing guide to critical thinking in the age of misinformation and fake news.
“Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism” by Safiya Umoja Noble: This book is a must-read if you’re interested in understanding how digital platforms can perpetuate systemic inequalities. It discusses how algorithms in search engines can reinforce racist and sexist beliefs, which makes it incredibly relevant for anyone committed to digital literacy and responsible fact-checking.If you’re looking for books that go beyond the ‘how-tos’ of fact-checking and delve into the socio-political implications of digital literacy, “Algorithms of Oppression” is your go-to. This book complements the list by adding a layer of social awareness to the technical skills covered in the other recommendations.
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