Are question headlines too vague to use?

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.

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  • Robert Knilands

    Actually, the shooting range example represents the main type I dislike. It’s definitely a “read only the lede” type of headline. Usually it’s the type a non-editing, non-journalist designer writes. It really says almost nothing about the article and does nothing to bring in a reader. Designers love those types of headlines because they don’t have to read past the lede, and they can recycle the same technique. In fact, I think most question heds originate with non-journalist designers.

  • Peter Erikson

    It all depends on the context and the forum. In Ms. Ellingwood’s case, posing a question as a headline is perfectly fine, as there is no “yes” or “no” answer. The headline draws interest as people shout, “Of course!” or “no way!” Conversely, writing a question headline for a story on the stock market wouldn’t work …

  • Bill Marvel

    Too often question headlines are the lazy way out of writing a real headline. They can also, like the old “Do you still bet your wife?” conundrum, be dishonest by implication: “Was Obama born in Kenya?” The story that follows may be fair, balanced, and accurate. the headline is not.

  • Jason Wermers

    In my opinion, question headlines are best when reporting on something that is being considered but it not a certainty. Example: “Shooting range coming to city?” for a story about a proposed shooting range. In the case of the story cited, however, I don’t think that was the most effective headline. It could be something like “Women’s ability to lead debated” or even “What leadership abilities do women have?”

  • NateBowman

    “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.’ “

    To me, this is exactly the point.

    you ask a closed- ended quiestion, you give the audience very little
    information with the answer, since the answer is “yes” or “no”.

    anyone who poses such a question is not reallly a journalist. It is
    Journalism 101 that a journalist asks open-ended questions.

    headline in question could have easily asked: “What qualities make for a
    successful female leader.?” That could have give the audience useful

    And, would have shown that the original headline was
    really useless, since the qualities of a successful leader are the
    same, no matter what their gender.

  • jrussial

    I wouldn’t dismiss question headlines out of hand. In some cases, such as a set of well-researched pro and con articles, a question headline can make the point that the jury is still out. I disagree about the value of using a question headline as a device to provoke an “interesting discussion” in a case where the answer is clear.

  • Dustin Nash

    A stand of some sort would have been a good start that’s for sure.

  • Robert Knilands

    Question headlines are usually lazy and not informative. The idea is to answer questions, not just to present them.

  • sylvia kronstadt

    Headlines in the form of questions can be very effective in revving up my intellect before I even begin reading the story. And I am also more attracted to stories in which substantial questions — be they factual, ethical or strategic — are inherent. The question-mark headlines that always do irritate me do happen to be in the New York Times. The format is always the same: “Really? Nuts can help you lose weight.” or “Really? Five short walks are as good as one long one.”
    REALLY! That is obnoxious.

  • Kenny Ocker

    I don’t know if question headlines are too vague to use, but this article certainly is. Why bother bringing it up without taking a stand, especially if you’re going to use a question headline atop the article.