Lateral vs vertical evaluation of sources

My notes on Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M., Ortega, T., & Wineburg, S. (2018). Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(6), 27-32.

The upset of the 2016 American election was immediately followed by a rush to provide guidance on how to negotiate what was widely regarded as a dangerous proliferation of ‘fake news’. However Joel Breakstone et al found the problem was much wider than this in 7,804 responses to tasks which required students to evaluate online content that they collected over 18 months. Media literacy has been widely invoked as the solution to this problem and Google and Facebook have been involved respectively in funding the development of a curriculum in Canada and guidance for students in schools in Italy.

Many of the media literacy initiatives which ensued have relied on checklists, such as the wonderfully named CRAAP Test, inviting students to ask questions such as whether the site is a ‘.com’ and whether a contact person is listed. However this guidance conflicts with what fact checkers do, who immediately begin to read laterally rather than drilling down vertically into the details of the specific site they are looking at. As they describe on pg 28:

When confronted by new information on an unfamiliar web-site, fact-checkers almost instantaneously left the site and read laterally — opening up new browser tabs and searching across the web to see what they could fnd about the trustworthiness of the source of informa-tion. Only after examining other sites did they return to read the material on the original site more closely.

Vertical interrogation leaves an individual easily fooled by simple procedures such as using official-looking logos and buying top level domain names. As they put it, “By focusing on features of websites that are easy to manipulate, checklists are not just ineffective but misleading.” (pg 30). Furthermore, the length of these checklists (e.g. CRAAP has 25 questions) make them unfeasible as practical everyday tools for assessing unfamiliar content online.

In contrast lateral reading involves leaving the site to try and find external sources which offer information about it which can be used to assess its credibility. It is a practical strategy rather than a panacea, taught as part of a broader array of lessons about careful evaluation of online material. Teaching this requires reinforcement across the curriculum rather than a one off class taught by a librarian. This necessitates avoiding “mistaking students’ fluency with digital devices for sophistication at judging the information such devices yield” (pg 31). Teachers need training in these techniques, as well as the time and support needed to apply them across the curriculum.

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