No—but they make an excellent starting point, especially when supplemented by other trusted sources. As we’ve seen in course materials, the term “reading laterally” emerged from a 2018 research study done by two Stanford University academics, Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew. They observed that experienced fact-checkers make a habit of cross-checking basic information “laterally,” outside the article, before diving “vertically” into and through an article.
Translation: When in doubt, open a bunch of additional browser tabs. They don’t call it “the web” for nothing—and rooting out weak, suspect strands with some immediate Googling and URL-slicing is a relatively easy skill to acquire. Like a veteran fact-checker, you can learn to jump around to multiple websites in search of a quick reality check about any given story, source or organization. Only then should you decide which reputable sites or sources are worth examining further. (It’s basically holding up a finger to check the prevailing digital winds. It makes sense to get your bearings that way, rather than potentially wasting time digging through material that might already be recognized by a lot of other people as spurious.)
In some concise videos that further explain the process, web-literacy pied piper and educator Mike Caulfield shows why a good place to start is indeed with full-time “fact checking” sites. They’re a logical first step because a particular story or controversy may have already been definitively dealt with by one or more of them. So you should keep Snopes, FactCheck.org, NewsGuard, AP Fact Check and PolitiFact (which awards a “Lie of the Year”) in your browser favorites. But Caulfield goes on to demonstrate that laterality has to extend beyond that, because as good as fact-checking sites are, they can’t track everything. Look to Wikipedia for basic searches on any organization (when was it founded, how many members, what’s the budget) or prominent person, scrolling to the bottom of the page first to see how robust the direct research links are; and look to build a core group of trusted news organizations to consult as habit – things like major newspapers’ online iterations, government websites on science, health and weather, and prominent web-native news sites.
The takeaway: Think of lateral reading as sending up multiple signal flares in a barrage instead of one at a time. The bombardment lights up a wide swath of terrain. It lets you see quickly which part of this landscape might provide the fastest gauge of reliability. Fact-checkers live under constant unrelenting deadlines. They’ve learned to seek the path of best results with least resistance. Fact-checking sites can sometimes provide that, but there will always be holes in their coverage, so fact-checkers –and smart news consumers—need to look further afield. Until our next Q&A, happy tab-surfing.