Betteridge's law of headlines
Betteridge's law of headlines is an adage that states: "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist, although the general concept is much older. The observation has also been called "Davis' law" or just the "journalistic principle". In the field of particle physics, the concept, referring to the titles of research papers, has been referred to as Hinchliffe's Rule since before 1988.
Betteridge explained the concept in a February 2009 article, regarding a TechCrunch article with the headline "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?":
- 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.
Five years before Betteridge's article, a similar observation was made by British newspaper editor Andrew Marr in his 2004 book My Trade. It was among Marr's suggestions for how a reader should interpret a newspaper if they really wish to know what is going on:
- 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'.
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