New York Times | Technovia

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan plunges into the never-ending debate over headlines that pose a question in Wednesday's Public Editor's Journal. A post on the paper's opinion blog Room for Debate is headlined "Do Women Have What It Takes To Lead?"

Plenty of readers had something to say about the original post, but the use of the perilous punctuation is what sparked debate with Sullivan, whose own blog post bears the headline "Is There Really Room To Debate Whether Women Can Lead?"

The editor of Room for Debate, Susan Ellingwood, responded to my question about the headline.

Raising a provocative question is our way of starting an interesting discussion. That title starts a productive conversation about gender stereotypes and leadership – even if, in the end, the consensus among the debaters is “yes, women do have what it takes.” Each post explored the question from a different angle. And as readers’ reactions show, the pieces sparked a conversation about an important topic. That’s our goal.

Whether question heads are valid way of achieving such goals is a long-contested subject among editors (of course, marketing copywriters may disagree). In this instance, the Times' point/counterpoint posts test tech journalist Ian Betteridge's "maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word 'no.' "

Room for Debate, perhaps by its nature, is a champion purveyor of question headlines: A survey of its front page currently yields 17 question marks in headlines alone, with titles such as "Should Depositors Save Cyprus’s Banks?," "Can We Afford to Forgive Atrocities?" and "Is That a Movie or Video Game?" Of course, sometimes the use of questions in New York Times copy is used to its fullest, most brilliant effect.

Do question headlines serve a needed purpose, or are they an easy way to troll readers? Full disclosure: Poynter has published more than its share of question headlines.