How to Read the News Like a Fact Checker

A Media Literacy Strategy

We are flooded with news of varying quality, and it is often difficult to tell the difference between fake news and propaganda, one-sided stories, or credible news. In recent years, dangerous misinformation has spread online, such as fake news about political candidates, designed to sway voters and influence elections, and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, which impact children’s health. Students need techniques for evaluating the news stories and ads they come across, especially as the United States nears the 2020 presidential elections. Learning to read laterally is a key media literacy strategy that can help students determine the quality of online sources.

This technique is described in a 2018 study conducted by two Stanford researchers, Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise, which showed that college students and trained historians struggled to evaluate the online sources shown to them by researchers because they read vertically, meaning they focused on information contained within the original website. Fact checkers were able to quickly determine the credibility of websites by reading laterally, meaning they opened multiple tabs in their browsers to read what other sources say about the website.

This Teaching Idea trains students to read online sources laterally, like professional fact checkers do, so that they can better evaluate the credibility of news they see online.1

  1. Experiment with Vertical Reading

    In this activity, students will be asked to evaluate two articles by reading vertically, using only information they find on the two organizations’ websites. In the next activity, they will be asked to re-evaluate the articles using lateral reading.

    Place students into groups and ensure that each group has access to a device with internet. (Note: Alternatively, you could organize this activity as a full class activity, using one device and a projector.) Ask your students to open the two pages: Stigma: At the Root of Ostracism and Bullying from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Bullying at School: Never Acceptable from the American College of Pediatricians.

    Tell your students that they will have two chances to evaluate these pages. In this activity, they should spend five minutes reviewing the information they find on the two websites and then choose the page they think is more credible. They should not visit other websites to read about the American Academy of Pediatrics or the American College of Pediatricians.

    In their groups, they should answer the following questions:

    • Which page do you think is more credible?
    • How did you reach this conclusion? What aspects of the two websites did you look at?

    Once students have finished the first round of evaluations, ask a representative from each group to present their group’s findings to the class.

    Explain to your students that in this round, they practiced vertical reading, since they read down through the information they found on the organizations’ websites.

  2. Experiment with Lateral Reading

    Ask your students to conduct another five-minute round of evaluations, with the same groups from the previous activity. This time, students should focus on finding out information about the two organizations that published the original articles by visiting other websites.

    In their groups, they should answer the following questions:

    • What new information did you find by visiting other websites?
    • Which websites did you find the most useful?
    • How did this information change or reinforce the conclusions you reached in the first round?
    • Which page do you now think is more credible?

    Once students have finished the second round of evaluations, ask a representative from each group to present their group’s findings to the class.

    Explain to your students that in this round, they practiced lateral reading, since they read about the organizations across the internet.

    Use the think aloud teaching strategy to model lateral reading for your students and clarify any remaining questions about the two pages. First, search for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and show your students that the organization is a large and highly respected medical organization. (See for example the entry on the American Academy of Pediatrics from MedicineNet. Sources such as the New York Times link to research from the American Academy of Pediatrics.)

    Then, search for the American College of Pediatricians. Show your students that this organization is a small splinter group of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which broke with the Academy over the issue of adoption by same-sex couples. The College advocates for approaches known to be harmful to LGBTQ people. (See for example the Southern Poverty Law Center’s entry on The American College of Pediatricians or Psychology Today’s article about the organization.)

    Return to the The American College of Pediatricians’ article Bullying at School: Never Acceptable and show your students that the article subtly implies that there should not be bullying prevention programs that are specifically designed to reduce bullying against LGBTQ youth, by arguing that programs should not focus on “the special characteristic or activity of one study or group” or validate “individuals displaying temporary behaviors or orientations.”2

    Reading about the organizations on other websites can help students learn about the credibility of the organizations’ work or any biases they might have.

    Finally, discuss with your students: How do you think you can apply what you learned in this activity to reading news that you see in your social media feeds or elsewhere online?

Extension: Practice on the News

Ask your students to bring in news articles or studies that they come across in their social media feeds or elsewhere online. As a class, practice reading laterally about the news story to find information about who wrote it and how credible it is. You can use the following strategies to help you in your lateral reading:

  • Search for the organization on Wikipedia and follow the references at the bottom of the page to find out more about the organization.
  • Search for other news stories on the same topic and compare their coverage.
  • Look up who owns the domain of the website.
  • Use fact-checking websites to evaluate the information, such as PolitiFact, Snopes, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, or NPR’s Fact Check.

Additional Resources

Citations

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