The question mark lets you make up anything you like

A trend I've noticed in journalism is to make some sort of outrageous statement, but then stick a question mark at the end to disavow any responsibility for the statement. By changing it to a question, you're avoiding actually having to back up what you write. "I'm not saying this is actually true. I'm just raising the question."

For example, a headline might read "The sign of something new?" The author doesn't want to actually back up the claim that the subject is the sign of something new, so he'll just say it with a question mark. Now the responsibility to support or refute the claim has been shifted to you, the reader.

The question itself doesn't need to have any merit whatsoever. In fact, you can just make up the craziest stuff imaginable; as long as you put a question mark after it, you're home free. And it doesn't even need to take the form of a question!

Made-up examples:

Perhaps I should've titled this article "Journalists are just making up stuff and printing it as if it were news?"

Bonus journalistic head-scratcher: The word "official" appears to have taken on a meaning I was previously unaware of.

It's official: The Microsoft Zune has gone the way of the Kin, the Courier, and Bob.

If you actually click through to the article's source, and then click through to that article's source, you'll see that the source is a person "who declined to be identified because the decision hasn't been announced."

So let me see if I understand this. They're saying that a statement is "official" because it comes from an anonymous person who doesn't wish to be identified because no official statement has yet been made.

(I think my copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach just exploded.)

Comments (38)
  1. RCG says:

    Going for extra bonus points…

    It's Official: Microsoft's Raymond Chen says Zune NOT Dead?

  2. Karellen says:

    See also Betteridge's Law of Headlines:…/Betteridge&

  3. xpclient says:

    Am I for real for just a robot?:…/6648392.aspx

  4. You can fill a lot of column inches by asking and refuting crazy stuff though.... says:

    NPR did a whole piece this morning about how Saudi Arabia could flood the markets with oil to exact revenge on Iran.  Then followed it up with a bunch of experts patiently explaining that Saudi Arabia could and would do no such thing.

  5. In other news: Kinect has trouble recognizing people with golden braids.

  6. Danny Moules says:

    @xpclient That's a rhetorical question, not a journalistic statement posing as a question. Or perhaps you are a robot and totally incapable of grasping the point being made.

  7. Erno says:

    Wait… what did the first official comment say?

  8. dave says:

    Some people are asking whether this kind of evasiveness is popular in political reporting.

    [Nice. -Raymond]
  9. grumpy says:

    Experts question the importance of this "trend".

    [People are apparently saying that the use of question marks is a growing trend, but solid numbers are hard to come by. -Raymond]
  10. ErikF says:

    It's speculated that this happens when reporters have to file something, but have been actually sitting at Starbucks writing the next great sci-fi book.

  11. Jason says:

    I assume they were quoting some people familiar with the matter.

  12. Christopher says:

    I remember the Daily Show did a short segment on this a few months ago as well. Unfortunately I can't track the particular episode down, but it's along the same thing: "President Obama: The worst president ever?"

    I for one believe it's a growing trend, and I for one think it's horrible. But what can you do short of buying Fox News and changing their ways?

  13. Mason Wheeler says:

    The Kinect may not be racist, but by all accounts it demos quite well but is pretty much worthless in real-world use unless your living room is approximately the size of an aircraft hangar.

  14. None says:

    Is the Raymond Chen's Old New Thing turning into just another .NET blog?  Some readers certainly think so according to an unscientific poll posted on our website visited only by editors, who are looking to create a story. John Smith, computer user, details what we can expect from the Old New Thing if it follows this direction.

  15. Bob says:

    @Christopher: The Daily Show episode is here:…/the-question-mark

  16. James Schend says:

    Raymond, I dunno if you Fark, but you should read the Fark book if you're interested in the ways mass media make up stories/run filler/are generally lazy as hell:…/ref=sr_1_1

    It's a good read even if you're not a fan of the Fark webpage, and yes it covers the "questions as headlines" phenomenon.

  17. DonBoy says:

    The completely-joking sense of "it's official" (as in "it's official: [whatever] now sucks") has all but replaced the actual meaning of "it's official", to the point where it's disorienting to see it applied to something that could possibly be an official statement of something.  Oh, and it's completely played out, which stops nobody.

  18. CGomez says:

    It's also not journalism to make your headline simply attribute another source.  Say the New York Times headline is: "USA Today: Raymond Chen blog entry suggests Zune statement not official."

    I just don't feel it's news to report what someone else is reporting. Why don't your reporters confirm the story?

    [Newspaper love this, because it lets them cover the story while claiming that they're not covering the story. "USA Today reports that <young female celebrity> is <something scandalous>. Hand-wringing ensues." The New York Times would never cover <young female celebrity>, because that's beneath them, but they can cover the fact that other newspapers are reporting on it. -Raymond]
  19. metafonzie says:

    I think you're describing the entire business model of sites like Slashdot. Some of the anti-ms trolls there can be quite entertaining though. A "top" comment today substitutes the opinion of random person on microsoft product X to direct quote from microsoft.

  20. Danny Moules says:

    Scholarly communication in transition: The use of question marks in the titles of scientific articles in medicine, life sciences and physics 1966–2005…/uh466q5p3722n37l

  21. John says:

    I'm Ron Burgundy?

    This extraneous text is required to get past some kind of minimum length filter.

    It would be really nice if the blog software could let you know this instead of silently swallowing your comment.

    It would be REALLY nice if the blog software could let you know your comment timeout expired instead of silently swallowing your comment.

    Are the authors of this blog software worse than Hitler?  You decide.

  22. Some Guy says:

    Amanda Knox was recently found not guilty, released, and sent home.

    The Daily Mail had pre-written a story for the "guilty" and the "not guilty" option, and accidentally published the wrong one.

    Somehow, the pre-written stories had quotes from lawyers at the trial. And while it's true that everyone at a trial always say the exact same damned thing regardless of the details, we have to ask if they information in the other version was any more genuine?

    No, seriously, if they had published the right story, would there be any reason to believe that it contained any genuine information? I don't think so.

    "Journalists are just making up stuff and printing it as if it were news?"  Damn, I had no idea that Raymond was putting stuff into the queue before the internet was invented.

  23. Aaron Margosis says:

    I think John's comment invokes Godwin's Law, which closes comments on this blog post.

  24. steveg says:

    I think John should have written: "Is writing software that enables hundreds of thousands of posts with millions of comments, providing entertainment, knowledge, pathos, tales of love and death, soul searching, trivia, jokes and more IS worse than anything a certain former German leader did? Film at 11."

  25. alegr1 says:

    "The Kinect may not be racist, but by all accounts it demos quite well but is pretty much worthless in real-world use unless your living room is approximately the size of an aircraft hangar"

    Like a typical white guy's living room.

  26. Ivan K says:

    This reminds me of a documentary some years back about Fox News (Outfoxed?) where they show a string of clips of the station's hosts interviewing people / talking amonst themselves, and starting questions / comments with "People are saying…." and "Some people say…"

    Also, I've heard there's an Area Man who takes the Onion News for real…

  27. cheong00 says:

    IMO, it's pretty standard to start a controversial topic like this as an eye catcher, then continue with an article that could be remotely tangent to the topic and come to conclusion with a few unconfirmed / non-credited opinion in between.

    I regard this is a good training for analytical mind. Sometimes it could be quite challenging to figure out what is stated as fact and what is opinion.

  28. ErikF says:

    Maybe journalists can adopt the question mark as a ternary operator and have a "Choose Your Own Adventure" vibe going on:

    "Are Macs Better Than PCs" ? See A3 : See B17

    "Does Smoking Really Cause Cancer" ? See B3 : See the Cartoon section


    This way, as long as journalists restrict themselves to strictly Boolean questions, everyone can be happy!

    BTW, I just read on CBC that Dennis Ritchie died today. Sadly, that wasn't a made-up headline. :-(

  29. Gabe says:

    "Steve Jobs, Dennis Ritchie Dead: Are You Next?"

  30. Brotha says:

    The kinect fiasco is not a isolated event by any means, it's a institutional culture at m$.…/Photoshop-Disasters-the-Microsoft-racism-row-and-more-photo-retouching-blunders.html

  31. Mike Dimmick says:

    James Schend: For a deeper look inside the workings of the media, from a freelance journalist, try Nick Davies' "Flat Earth News".…/ref=sr_1_1

  32. Gabe says:

    alegr1: There's plenty more where that came from:

  33. Joe says:

    "may"; The other excuse for writing absurd stories.

  34. David says:

    I've heard a phrase to describe this in the context of newspaper headlines: "Startling questions to which the answer is 'no'".

  35. Gabe says:

    Does somebody at Improbable Research read The Old New Thing?

    The very next day they have a post about a paper with a similar title (…/ig-nobel-winner-writes-best-abstract-ever): "Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?"

    The complete abstract: "Probably not."

  36. Florian says:

    Can you avoid any responsibility for what you write by putting a question mark at the end? I'm not saying it's true. You decide.

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