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Betteridge's law (of headlines)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

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." The sweeping generalization refers to the poor journalistic practice of writing sensational headlines in the form of a question in order to compensate for the author's lack of facts. 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.

Phrasing headlines as a question is a legitimate practice that has become closely associated with fake news due to its misuse. When a headline is phrased as a question to which the answer is "no," the author is free to ask hypothetical questions that are designed to appeal to emotion.

Examples of headlines that comply with Betteridge's law include:

Can Amazon Alexa be trusted?
Should Google Home fear Watson Assistant?
Will your next lawyer be named Siri?

Question-formatted headlines are often used for linkbaiting, the practice of crafting sensational content in hopes that readers and content providers will share the content with others. Question-formatted headlines are also used to spread disinformation because they can allow an unscrupulous author to imply that a subjective opinion is an objective fact.

Betteridge's law, which is named for technology journalist Ian Betteridge, has been a maxim of online journalism since the 1990s. The misuse of eye-catching questions in headlines to increase circulation, however, can be traced back to yellow journalism, scandal sheets and political tracts of centuries past.

See also: weaponized information

This was last updated in January 2018

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