Lateral Reading: What It Is & Why It Is Important

Written and Fact-Checked by 1440 Editorial Staff
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When you consume various news media it is important to be a critical reader. This means you question the accuracy of the information and assess whether you’re receiving the full story. Taking a skeptical approach to news media can increase your chances of reading unbiased and reliable publications that make you more informed about the world.

One tool you can use if you want to approach content more critically is lateral reading. This can help you confirm the accuracy of the information and suss out any bias that the publication might have. Learn more about this practice and how to implement it.

What Is Lateral Reading?

Lateral reading means checking to see whether a publication or author is reputable before engaging with the content. It involves researching the website or content creator to check their credibility. This is an important part of news literacy so you don’t waste your time on unreliable sources. You won’t consume news that is heavily skewed toward one viewpoint or shares fake information. 

Lateral reading is just one tool you can use to evaluate whether a story is reliable. You can also use similar strategies like fact-checking and researching the author to learn about any potential bias.

Importance of Lateral Reading

Lateral reading helps you on an individual level by preventing you from falling for fake news stories. The more you practice this skill, the more you can spot misinformation or approach bias critically. Lateral reading is a form of critical thinking that helps you save time because you won’t read questionable news articles that seem reputable at first glance. 

Lateral reading can also help you make the internet a better place. When you catch disreputable sites, you can stop reading the content and bounce from the page. You won’t share the misinformation or contribute to the number of views and comments that these pages receive. The more people catch fake or biased news, the less of an impact these troll sites can have.

Examples of Lateral Reading

One of the best ways to learn about lateral reading is to see it in action. Here are two examples of web users practicing lateral reading and catching disreputable news sources before they consume the content. 

  • Web User A wants to learn more about a war between two countries. They find a headline claiming that one country’s leader needs to be overthrown as a despot. Before reading the article, Web User A researches the publication and discovers that it is heavily skewed politically. They leave the website for more objective sources.  
  • Web User B sees a post on social media claiming that the government is going to impose strict laws that significantly reduce their rights. Instead of reading the article, commenting on the post, or sharing it with their friends, Web User B checks the website first. When they learn the site is known for misinformation, they look for better resources that objectively explain the proposed bill. 

In both of these examples, biased or sensationalized information is used to sway readers or generate buzz. Through lateral reading, web users catch low-quality sites and get their information from better sources instead.

How To Read Laterally

You can implement lateral reading best practices as you browse the web. This process doesn’t have to take long, especially as you learn which websites are reputable and which ones to avoid. Here are a few steps to take

  • Stop reading after the headline: Do not read the body of the article or watch any videos until you confirm that you are on a reputable website.
  • Double-check the URL: Mimicry is increasingly dangerous in the fake news world. While ABCnews.com is a reputable website, ABCnews.com.co could publish misinformation and is meant to deceive readers. 
  • Ask a search engine: Use phrases like “Is XYZ site accurate?” or “Is XYZ page biased?” to see what other publications say about that outlet. 
  • Evaluate the author and publication: Make sure the author and publication are legitimate, reputable, and qualified to speak on a particular subject. 
  • Search for similar stories by other publications: If you are concerned about the reliability or bias of a particular website, look for your news elsewhere. Find a news source you can trust.
  • Fact-check the headline’s claim: Make sure the headline is accurate and not sensationalized compared to other publications.   

Even if a publication passes your lateral reading test, it doesn’t hurt to read competing stories from other news outlets. This can give you a well-rounded view of the topic. 

The Goals of Lateral Reading

There are several reasons to practice lateral reading and encourage your peers to embrace this habit as well. Here are a few benefits that come when the internet is filled with lateral readers. 

  • You limit the spread of fake news. Lateral reading helps you catch misinformation before you consume and share it. 
  • Lateral reading elevates reputable news sources. Professional journalists and other credible authors won’t get overtaken by bots and trolls.  
  • You decrease your chances of entering an echo chamber. Lateral reading encourages you to get your news from unbiased sources or from outlets that present different viewpoints. 
  • You are less likely to develop extremist views. Disreputable news sites often use sensational headlines to try and push readers toward polarized ideas.

You have access to hundreds of new sites and thousands of social media channels through your smartphone. Identifying the best outlets over biased or inaccurate ones can help you cut through the noise and get the information you need.

Alternatives to Lateral Reading

Lateral reading is just one form of critical reading. There are multiple ways to challenge the information you are exposed to. Here are a few other best practices to follow if you want to avoid falling for fake news and other biased information.

  • Identify why you are consuming the information: Think about what you want to learn from the content, which will help you evaluate whether engaging with it was valuable. 
  • Avoid skimming: Carefully read any articles you come across so you can better identify errors or biases.
  • Make sure you fully understand the content: Identify what the information means and the message you are supposed to get from the content. Make sure the content defends the headline with supportive data and information. This can also help you identify bias. 

You can also compare the content you are reading with other sources on the topic. See where various publications differ in the facts they share. 

Who Uses Lateral Reading?

Lateral reading is an essential skill for journalists, bloggers, and copywriters who report on the news. It is also essential for teachers who share articles and information with their students. These professions can stop the spread of misinformation through their critical thinking and fact-checking skills. 

However, anyone can use lateral reading to check the sources of the information they receive. Developing this healthy habit can prevent you from falling for fake news or reading polarizing content. Anyone who wants to stay informed about the news in their communities or across the world can benefit from lateral reading. 

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