Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Is this post an example of Betteridge’s Law?

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Article in The New York Times

Yesterday, I was browsing The A.V. Club when I came across the following clunky headline: “Could Guardians of the Galaxy be worthy of the coveted Firefly comparison?” I only skimmed the article itself, which asks, in case you were wondering, if the Guardians of the Galaxy animated series could be “the next Firefly“—a matter on which I don’t have much of an opinion one way or the other. But my attention was caught by one of the reader comments in response, which invoked Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.'” Needless to say, this is a very useful rule. In its current form, it was set forth by the technology writer Ian Betteridge in response to the TechCrunch headline “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?” Betteridge wrote:

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.

Betteridge may have given the rule its most familiar name, but it’s actually much older. It pops up here and there in collections of Murphy’s Law and its variants, and among academics, it’s best known as Hinchliffe’s Rule, attributed—perhaps apocryphally—to the physicist Ian Hinchliffe, which states: “If the title of a scholarly article is a yes or no question, the answer is ‘no.'” (This recently led the Harvard University computer scientist Stuart M. Shieber to publish a scholarly article titled “Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe’s Rule?” The answer is no, but only if the answer is yes.) In his book My Trade, the British newspaper editor Andrew Marr makes the same point more forcefully:

If the headline asks a question, try answering “no.” Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means “don’t bother reading this bit.”

Article from The Daily Mail

What I find most interesting about Betteridge’s version of the rule is his last line: “Which, of course, is why it’s so common in the Daily Mail.” This implies that the rule can be used not just to identify unreliable articles, but to characterize publications as a whole. As I write this, for instance, three headlines on the New York Times home page run afoul of it: “Is Valeant Pharmaceuticals the Next Enron?” “Has Diversity Lost Its Meaning?” “Are Flip Phones Having a Retro Chic Moment?” (There are a few more that technically sprout question marks but don’t quite fit the rubric, such as “Should You Be Watching Supergirl?”) The Daily Mail site, by contrast, has five times as many, and most of them fall neatly into the Betteridge category, including my favorite: “Does This Clip Show the Corpse of a Feared Chupacabra Vampire?” Buzzfeed, interestingly, doesn’t go for that headline format at all, and it only uses question marks to signify its famous personality quizzes: “Are You More Like Adele or Beyoncé?” This implies that a headline phrased in the form of a question might not be especially good at attracting eyeballs: Buzzfeed, which has refined clickbait into an art form, would surely use it more often if it worked. Most likely, as both Betteridge and Marr imply, it’s a way out for journalists who want to publish a story, but aren’t ready to stand behind it entirely. If anyone objects, they can always say that they were just raising the issue for further discussion.

But most readers, I suspect, can intuitively sense the difference. Headlines like this have always reminded me of “The End?” at the close of Manos: The Hands of Fate, to which Crow T. Robot replies: “Umm…Yes? No! I want to change my answer!” It might be instructive to conduct a study of whether or not they’ve increased in frequency over the last decade, as news cycles have grown ever more compressed and the need to generate think pieces on demand forces writers to crank out stories with a minimum of preparation. It’s hard to blame the reporters themselves, who are operating under conditions that actively discourage the kind of extended research process that would allow the question mark to be removed or the article to be dropped altogether. (And it’s worth noting that editors, not reporters, are the ones who write the headlines.) This isn’t to say that there can’t be good stories that sport headlines in the form of a question: like the Bechdel Test for movies, it’s less about criticizing individual works than making us more aware of the landscape. And given the choice, the question mark—which at least provides a visible red flag—is preferable to the exclamation point, literal or otherwise, that characterizes so much current content, from cable news on down. In that light, the question mark almost feels like a form of courtesy. And we have to learn to live with it, at least until good journalism, like the flip phone, experiences a retro chic moment of its own.

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