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 principle is much older. As with similar "laws" (e.g., Murphy's law), it is intended as a humorous adage rather than always being literally true.
The maxim has been cited in anonymous compilations of variants of Murphy's Law under the title of "Davis' law" or the "journalistic principle", and has been referred to in commentary as "an old truism among journalists" in 2007.
In the field of particle physics, the concept is known as Hinchliffe's Rule, after physicist Ian Hinchliffe, who stated that if a research paper's title is in the form of a yes–no question, the answer to that question will be "no". The adage was humorously led into a Liar's paradox by a pseudonymous 1988 paper which bore the title "Is Hinchliffe’s Rule True?"
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'.
Ian 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.
- Betteridge, Ian (23 February 2009). "TechCrunch: Irresponsible journalism". Technovia.co.uk. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
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- Dawkins, pp. 220-222
- Gooden, Ch. 3
- "List of variants of Murphy's Law". Retrieved 2012-11-08.
- Liberman, Mark (2006-09-17). "Language Log: Davis Law". Itre.cis.upenn.edu. Retrieved 2012-11-08.
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- ""It's an old truism among journalists ..." 2007". Meatrobot.org.uk. 2007-12-04. Retrieved 2012-11-08.. The reference is to a post in the comment section of the blog DC's Improbable Science, dated Nov 22, 2007.
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- Peon, Boris (1988), "Is Hinchliffe’s Rule True?", Manuscript accepted for publication in Annals of Gnosis
- Stuart M. Shieber: Is This Article Consistent with Hinchliffe's Rule?, Annals of Improbable Research, May–June 2015, vol. 21, no. 3
- Peon, Boris (4 August 1988). "Is Hinchliffe's Rule True?". Retrieved 11 August 2014.
- Marr, Andrew (2004). My Trade: a short history of British journalism. London: Macmillan. p. 253. ISBN 1-4050-0536-X.