IN 21st-century journalism, clickbait is king. And there is no better way to getting the punters clicking than to introduce your story with a question. However outrageous the headline, the question mark entices the reader into a story that is typically anodyne. So familiar now is this technique that it has acquired the status of a law: Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, one of the Laws That Aren’t Laws (Radio 4, Monday of last week) which Robin Ince has been exploring.
Betteridge’s Law states that the answer to any question that appears as a headline is invariably “No”. From the portentous — “Was this the day democracy died?” — to the ludicrous — “Is Elvis alive and living in Virginia Water?” — the question-mark headline exempts lazy journalists from the responsibility of finding an answer.
In a marketplace that requires more news content in less time, the practice appears to have become more widespread, although Ian Betteridge, the tech journalist after whom the law is named, expressed here some sympathy for colleagues attempting in real time to report stories that have hardly had time to get out of the starting gates, let alone run their course.
The programme also invoked another principle, which states that we are much more credulous when reading about subjects in which we have no expertise than when we encounter stories in areas we know about. The “Gell-Mann Amnesia effect” gives a fancy name to a common phenomenon: we dismiss as rubbish a report on the scandal on our own doorstep, while happily believing a report on the next page of much the same thing in an institution unknown to us.
Newly equipped with Betteridge’s Law, I approached BBC World Service’s podcast series The Bomb (released each Friday) with vigilance. “My grandad worked on the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima. Could another man — Leo Szilard — have stopped it?” runs the publicity headline. In this absorbing account of the development of the atomic bomb, Emily Strasser tries her best to imply that Szilard — the Hungarian-born physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project — was the critical component in the historical chain reaction by which equations on a blackboard evolved into mass destruction. The story that she tells is full of teasing “What ifs?”.
Last week’s episode was a case in point. It is 1944, and Szilard has been frozen out of the group working on the bomb. His concern about the use of the bomb to annihilate large civilian populations has reached the point where he reaches out to his former teacher Albert Einstein, and drafts a letter to President Roosevelt arguing against the use of such devastating and indiscriminate force.
Might FDR have been sympathetic? What might have happened — or, more to the point, not have happened — had FDR not died in April 1945?