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Ooh, will there be a [breathless] schism?

[ 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.

It’s simple:

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.

6 Responses to “Ooh, will there be a [breathless] schism?”

  1. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    They are always trying to find dog-biting men.
    On another note, I’ve thought for some time that questions are simply one of the most powerful performative strategies available to us. The person who hears one CANNOT HELP but try to answer it, even if he already knows the answer or if the question is ridiculous. There is the split second when, regardless of its merits, the auditor considers a Yes answer.

  2. Duncan Kinder Says:

    On a distant galaxy, long ago, I hung out on a mailing list officially devoted to Milton but actually concerned more generally with early modern intellectual history.  Artificial memory was one topic of discussion on it.  ( Note that Milton composed Paradise Lost while blind – a feat that necessarily demanded great memory ).
    Anyhow, I then asked whether artificial memory had been used for espionage – no need to transport incriminating documents.  ( E.g., by Ricci’s Jesuit colleagues in England. )   No one knew – although someone noted that Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” involved a Mr. Memory.)
    The best discussion of artificial memory is Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything   http://www.amazon.com/Moonwalking-Einstein-Science-Remembering-Everything/dp/0143120530
    As for use in espionage – with all the high tech electronic surveillance going on nowadays – artificial memory would be one way to fly under the radar.

  3. Duncan Kinder Says:

    My apologies, I was trying to respond to the Hannibal Lector post and by mistake made my comment on this post instead.

  4. zen Says:

    No worries!

  5. joey Says:

    Charles! you miss the point! Its not whether the there is any sense in the tweet, its there purely to garner page views, the question mark is there to give a bit of plausible deniability to the tweet.

    Stupid misleading headlines = pageviews = ad revenue.

    Any you have been suckered into giving this garbage website oxygen, even if you only meant to lampoon them.

    Its a case of heads I win, tails you lose. 

  6. Ooh, will there be a [breathless] schism? | Betteridge’s Law Says:

    […] Ooh, will there be a [breathless] schism? […]

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