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Betteridge's law (of headlines)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Betteridge's law (of headlines) is an old news adage stating "Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no." The adage is a reaction to those journalists hiding their own, often accusatory, opinion behind the thin veil of a question.

In the form of a question, more can be implied with less responsibility. Question-formatted headlines are a commonly-used strategy for implying what a journalist might not have enough evidence to actually state, so they can publish a piece to which they think the public will respond. Betteridge's law suggests we should ignore such tactics as a rule.

Betteridge’s law has been around as a maxim in journalism since the 1990s, when a published collection of variations of Murphy’s Law called it Davis’s Law, without explaining who Davis was. The law has also been called simply the journalistic principle. Much like Murphy’s Law -- anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst time possible -- Betteridge’s law is rooted in cynical humor.

The law was named for technology journalist Ian Betteridge after a 2007 article he wrote for TechCrunch. Examining a previous story: "Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?", Betteridge stated:

"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."

The law treats question-formatted headlines all the same. As such, it categorizes these headlines as the latest QTWTAIN: Question to which the answer is no. Betteridge's law is essentially a humorous sweeping generalization in the face of baseless sensational stories that hide behind phrasing as a question.

See also: fake news, weaponized information

This was last updated in January 2018

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