How to Read the News Like a Fact Checker
A Media Literacy Strategy
This resource is part of our Election 2020 collection, designed to help you teach about voting rights, media literacy, and civic participation, in remote and in-person settings.
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
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 three pages: Stigma: At the Root of Ostracism and Bullying originally published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatrics homepage, and Bullying at School: Never Acceptable from the American College of Pediatricians. (Note: the article Stigma: At the Root of Ostracism and Bullying is no longer available directly on the American Academy of Pediatrics website, so in order to follow the activity, ask students to open the article as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics homepage.)
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 in the the two articles as well as on the websites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatrics. Then students should choose which article 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:
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.
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:
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?
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: