Can you really tell an entire story in a headline?

September 8, 2015

In 2009, the British tech journalist Ian Betteridge capped a brief blog post with a simple motto: When a headline asks a question, the answer should be “no.”

Betteridge’s Law, as it’s now called, is built on the idea that news outlets place these crowns atop stories that don’t have the facts required to buttress the nut graph. Readers adopted the motto, using its blunt force to clobber click-hungry headlines and scrutinize the reporting that followed.

Is it really a sin to be single? No. Are we ready to let military robots decide whom to kill? No. Is this deep-fried Big Mac completely disgusting or absolutely wonderful? Wait one second.

Betteridge’s Law crumbles when applied to open-ended headers. The maxim’s flaws are also apparent next to some questions with definitive answers. It’s acceptable for a journalist to tease readers with a question when covering the abstract. Especially if the article has the remedy. “No” just doesn’t cut it when a headline asks whether humans will destroy the earth. “I think it’s simplistic nonsense,” says David Sullivan, vice president of the American Copy Editors Society.

But the adage’s simplicity is what Ian Betteridge says makes it a great path to media literacy. The rebuttal not only prompts readers to appraise a writer’s conclusions, but also to gauge whether they’re about to click on what amounts to digital tabloid journalism. “You’ve always got to question what you read,” he says.

Not sold on the value of Betteridge’s Law? Check out this quiz that puts real headers to the test, gathered from as well as other corners of the internet.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha