Q: Does ‘lateral reading’ work with on-air and printed news reports?


Certainly — after all, that’s how we lived before the web. But it’s a fairly antiquated way of consuming information these days. Nevertheless, the question offers an opportunity to think about the difference between information and knowledge. I’ll come back to that in a second.

Before we read almost everything online, we had no choice but to read across a variety of publications to know what was happening in the world and develop our ability to critically assess the information we encountered. We read magazines and newspapers of different political leanings to gain a deeper understanding of complex situations, and the process was cumulative.

That process produced knowledge, that is, an ability to put something in context and discuss its many aspects with some measure of nuance and authority. In other words, the gradual accumulation of facts and arguments from such a wide variety of sources made us capable of thinking about those facts as parts of a whole, rather than isolated particles of information. Unfortunately, the latter is far more common in the short-burst, rapid-fire news environment we inhabit today.

On the other hand, it’s far easier now to assess something’s credibility than it was before the web. But it’s still our responsibility to develop that sense of context and cultivate our knowledge of an issue over time instead of seeing each new development as an isolated piece of information with no bearing on either the future or the past.

As for on-air broadcasts, the solution is not dissimilar from lateral reading online. If you hear something on the radio or see something on TV, you can evaluate its credibility using the news literacy tools of this class: VIA, I’M VAIN, and signs of bias (we’ll discuss bias a bit later in the semester). Then, if possible, use the web to check what you heard or saw on air and see what other sources have to say, or what you might glean about the report itself and who is behind it.

But as with life before the web, it’s still a cumulative process and takes time. It’s not just a matter of checking the facts, but of retaining what we’ve read before and placing new information into a context that leads to a deeper understanding of complex issues and an ability to discuss them with others. That’s knowledge.