Are Headlines Ending in a Question Mark a Good Idea?

Question Mark - Betteridge's Law of HeadlinesI was having an email discussion with some people I work with. It was about an article that is really interesting, but based on sketchy science. And one of the people wrote, “Don’t forget Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.” The law is a little obscure. The basic idea is that any article that asks a yes or no question can be answered in the negative. Consider, for example, the headline of this article.

It may not be clear why this matters, so let me explain. Imagine that you want to publish an article that is really thin. Maybe some study just came out that found a negative correlation between drinking Pepsi and getting colon cancer. Well, it’s just one study. There will probably be a dozen more that will show no effect or a positive correlation. So you write the article and publish it with the headline, “Is Pepsi a Cure for Colon Cancer?”

See the trick? You’re not saying that Pepsi stops colon cancer; you’re just asking questions. As Donald Trump might put it, “We just want to find out what’s going on.” It’s a bit sleazy. But more important, it isn’t honest. This is quite different from asking a question in a headline and then answering it in the article.

History of Betteridge’s Law

The concept got its name starting back in 2009. Erick Schonfeld wrote an article for TechCrunch, Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA? The story took off — and not in a good way. It didn’t seem to be true. Ian Betteridge responded to the article at TechNovia, TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism. He ended the article:

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it. Which, of course, is why it’s so common in The Daily Mail.

The Broader View

Of course, the concept wasn’t original to Betteridge. It’s part of a broader discussion of “weasel words.” These are things that non-fiction writers — journalists especially — talk about a lot. For example, I can write, “It seems that there is information that some people believe proves Donald Trump enjoys getting golden showers from Vladimir Putin.” If you notice the “seems” and “some people believe,” you will see that what I’ve actually said is that I don’t know a damned thing.

Should You End Headlines With Question Marks?

But since I don’t want to fall afoul of Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, I am going to answer my question. Are Headlines That End in a Question Mark a Good Idea? Yes! People like them. They click on them. But they are like all headlines: they raise ethical issues. I think the writer should answer the question they ask. Otherwise, they shouldn’t ask a question. TechCrunch shouldn’t have gone with, “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?” It should have gone with something like, “Rumor Spreading That Last.fm Shares User Data With RIAA.” But even that would be misleading because it was mostly that one TechCrunch article that spread the rumor. More accurate would be, “Exclusive: A Rumor I Heard That Last.fm Shares User Data With RIAA.”

The sad thing is, of course, that ethics be damned. TechNovia doesn’t seem to even exist anymore. TechCrunch is one of the biggest tech websites in the world. According to Alexa, it is the 550th most visited website overall. Of course, it is a great website. But I have little doubt that they made a huge amount of money off that non-great article, even though they were widely criticized for it.

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines is most useful for writers and editors to think about before publishing. If a question headline seems perfect for the article, maybe the article isn’t worth publishing — at least not yet.

2 thoughts on “Are Headlines Ending in a Question Mark a Good Idea?

  1. I found this especially relevant in these days of Congressional hearings and post-election rhetoric. I admit, I personally tend to answer in the negative, whether the question is “Are things getting worse?” or “Are things getting better?” Ditto for “Will dem Packers will win this weekend?” and “Will dem Packers lose this weekend?” Being “wired for argument” is so ubiquitous; could it be an ingrained human trait?

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