Counterintuitive maybe, but taking a step back from articles or social media posts to really reflect on the information and the source can set you up for evaluation success. It is easy to get swept up in clickbait or emotionally charged headlines. Pause and remind yourself that as a responsible researcher, you are seeking truth with an open and curious mind.
When you are ready, ask yourself:
- What/Who is the source/website?
- Is it a source/website I am familiar with?
- If not, what information do I need to help me analyze the information or claim and evaluate the credibility of this source.
The last question above leads into the second step of SIFT, which is to Investigate the Source.
Investigate the Source
In this step, you will find out about the source as well as the author. For example, if an article is posted on a website, you will want to know what that website (the source) is all about. You will also want to know about the person who wrote that article (the author). To investigate the source, employ a strategy called Lateral Reading, a term coined by Sam Wineburg’s Stanford research team.
Lateral reading is a strategy that you can use to compare several websites side by side at once. We’ve all been guilty of having a couple (ok more like 20 for some of us) web browser tabs open at once. Now, you can utilize multiple tabs to read laterally and compare information.
- Open up a tab next to your original webpage.
- Google the website, author’s, or organization’s name and read what other websites not affiliated with the original source has to say. This can give you insight into the source and their reputation on the web.
- Look at a few sources to confirm (use more tabs to really maximize that lateral comparison).
Check out the video, Lateral Reading, from CrashCourse all about lateral reading.
Lateral reading works well for evaluating specific information within an article or website too, since you can look at multiple sources and compare. We’ll discuss this in more detail further along.
One reason why reading laterally is important, is because it helps us put an individual source, author, or claim in perspective among the larger body of information around that topic. In other words, we do not want to take any given source at face value. People, organizations, and websites that have underlying agendas or are less than straightforward with their purpose will not directly state this in their About Us section. We need to see how that source stands up outside of itself. Lateral reading is one technique that can help us do that.
During your lateral reading, you will gain insight and information into the original source. You will use that insight to determine whether the original source has merit and is appropriate for your research purpose. Here are specific elements that you can look for to help make that determination.
Authority of the source or individual author
What expertise, credentials, work experience, life experience, or other significant subject knowledge does this person or organization possesses that qualifies them to provide credible information?
Bias of the source or the content of the information
Is there a known bias, political leaning, or social agenda related to the source? Lateral reading is especially helpful for uncovering bias since most sources will not openly detail this on their website.