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Evaluating Sources: Lateral Reading and SIFT

Introduction to Lateral Reading

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Time needed to complete this module: 20 minutes

Learning Objectives: 

  • Students will develop the habit of critically evaluating information and media sources in a variety of formats. 
  • Students will use lateral reading and SIFT techniques to evaluate sources.

People can fall victim to easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names. Many of us have been taught to read vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability.

In contrast, research has shown that fact-checkers are able to make more effective judgments about online sources by reading laterally. Lateral reading is a term that comes from Sam Wineburg, who is an Education and History professor at Stanford University and the  Founder and Executive Director of the Stanford History Education Group and Stanford's Ph.D. program in History Education. Wineburg and colleagues did research comparing how fact-checkers check claims and evaluate information sources to how Stanford undergraduates and PhD historians do the same. This research showed that professional fact-checkers are able to effectively and efficiently evaluate sources by using lateral reading. 

Reading laterally involves leaving a site after a quick scan and opening up new browser tabs in order to learn more about the source you’ve found. Do a quick Google or Wikipedia search to find out more about the publication, organization, or site on which you found your source. Going beyond the source itself to see what others have said about it (rather than just trusting the information on their About page) can help you make judgements about the credibility  of the original site. “Lateral reading helps the reader understand both the perspective from which the site’s analyses come and if the site has an editorial process or expert reputation that would allow one to accept the truth of a site’s facts” (Caulfield, Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, ch. 16).

Evaluating sources is an important part of not only being a student, but an informed citizen. There are many ways to evaluate sources, some of them reading vertically by looking through different elements of the source. This includes applying the ABCD and CRAAP method of evaluation. You can also employ a mixed approach that involves lateral reading as a first step to judge the overall credibility of an organization, publication, or site, followed by vertical reading to do a closer analysis of the specific source at hand. 

More Reading: Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information, Stanford History Education Group Working Paper No. 2017-A1, by Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, October 6, 2017

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