[ by Charles Cameron — of headlines and ice cream headaches ]
I’m a tolerant sort of chappie on the whole, but the astounding idiocy of a tweet today from the Huffington Post really caught my attention. It’s in the upper panel of the pair that follows:
I might have been seen the HuffPo tweet, suffered a transient mental glitch and forgotten it immediately — but as fortune would have it, I had also seen the lower of the two tweets earlier in the day, and a tweet in response which pointed Jimmy Sky to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. I’d been intrigued enough, in fact, to track down Betteridge’s Law on Wikipedia to figure out what the fuss was about.
Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.
Does the presence of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the United States while Barack Obama is sitting president — indeed, even holding a photo op in the same room with him — mean that the United States has split into five distinct and warring nations?
No more does the presence of a “pope emeritus” alongside a newly elected pope in the Vatican imply that there will be a schism in the church.
The idea is pinheaded.
As British journalist Andrew Marr wrote in his book, My Trade:
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’
He’s the one who seems to deserve credit for the idea… but Betteridge uses more colorful language in discussing a story titled 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 bollocks, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.
Okay. That HuffPo tweet is probably bollocks.
And that’s a case of characteristic British understatement on my part.