I just learned about Bettridge’s Law of Headlines, which states that:
Betteridge’s law of headlines is an adage that states: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” It is named after Ian Betteridge, a British technology journalist, although the general concept is much older. The observation has also been called “Davis’ law“ or just the “journalistic principle“.
Betteridge explained the concept in a February 2009 article, regarding a TechCrunch article with the headline “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 bullshit, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.“
The existence of this adage led me to question my own predilection of questioning others’ predilections, as well as those of those around me. Do Streets.mn authors fall into easy journalistic traps? Do we tend to write rhetorical questions as easy transitions between topical paragraphs? Are we so easily pigeon-holed?
Well, like any good quantitative social scientist, I decided to investigate. I ran all the Streets.mn headlines through an Arbitrary Quantification Matrix (AQM) and came up with some surprising results…
Which I now share with you.
Using patented wordpress technology, I correlated all the questionable Streets.mn headlines with one of six categories that together account for all the possible variations of answerability.
Yes — This answer is straightfoward. Does the headline imply or result in a positive response? Some good examples of this practice for Streets.mn writers include the post “Is Saint Paul Missing the Boat on its Riverfront?” or “Is it Time to Remove the Skyways?”
No — Following Bettridge (2012), this answer was the most interesting. Do most headlines make grand claims that they cannot, in the end, support? Examples of this practice include the post “Is a walkable neighborhood a healthy neighborhood?”, “Do stadiums bring development?”, and “Do we really want bike lanes?”
Reply Hazy — I reserved this answer categorization for questions which the post stubbornly refused to clarify along yes-or-no lines. What does this kind of questionable headline tactic mean for our website? Post examples that provoke in this way include “SWLRT: What are we trying to accomplish?” and the über-philosophical, “What is a car?”
Asking for a Quantity (or Location) — This answer was for questions with concrete and somewhat exacting replies. How many of this kind of question were there? Post examples include “Where do all the Nice Riders Go?” and “How much is 11th Avenue Worth?’
Sarcasm — For some reason, I have no idea why, Streets.mn writers can be snarky. Given how serious everyone seems to be all the time, this practice makes little sense. Examples of this kind of obviously exasperated post headline included “Encouraging Bicycling? Really?”,”Transit and Density are [gasp] Related?” and “So You Say You Want a Sidewalk?”
Binary included in the Question — This kind of answer caused the AQM to divide by zero. Examples of this kind of post include, “Vacant Property Ordinances: Help or Harm?” and “National Bike Summit: Progress or Hype?” Are these kind of headlines a good idea or bad idea?
There were 66 total headlines that ended in (or included) question marks.
As you can see from the conclusion, “Yes” answers, “No” answers, and “Reply Hazy” answers split just about evenly, well within the margin of error.
Can we draw any meaningful conclusions from these data?
Clearly Bettridge’s Law of Headlines does not apply to Streets.mn posts in any meaningful way. It seems that our authors are not beholden to “proper” journalistic standards, neither cottoning to factual clarity nor displaying any particular aversion to hackneyed rhetorical devices. Another conclusion from the data was the wide-spread nature of the questionable headlines, both in terms of being spread across the entire author population and across the full temporal spectrum of Streets.mn post history.
Some conclusions, albeit tentative, remain. Streets.mn writers displayed small but persistent tendencies toward embracing quantification, toward simplistic binary decision making, and toward sarcastic rhetorical questions clearly intended not to be taken seriously. All of these results suggest avenues for further research. That being said, this study is noteworthy primarily due to its lack of note-worthy-results. If any conclusions deserve to be taken away from this clearly meaningless exercise in the rhetorical questioning of rhetorical questions, we humbly suggest that Streets.mn writers, compared to the general population, are not given to easy answers.
Except when they are.
Which is half the time.
[Data set: streets question headlines.]
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