Are Media Asking Too Many Questions in Headlines?

Over the past several years there has been a new obsession with the media (TV, newspapers, online news sites) – posting headlines as questions instead of, well, headlines. It’s gotten to the point where the practice is not only accepted by virtually every media outlet, but also overused.  Just a search a few minutes before I began writing this article turned up a mass amount of question-based headlines on the front page of various news sites:

Amanda Knox – Victim of a Crazy Court System? (msnbc)
Is Franco Not Returning to General Hospital? (msnbc)
A Patent on Breast Cancer Genes? (msnbc)
Will Weekend Yield a Debt Deal? (cnn)
Are the Smurfs Crypto-Fascists? (cnn)
Weight Loss ‘Sleeve’ a Good Option? (cnn)
Are Internet Explorer Users Dumb? (cnn)
Genesis of a Killer? (CBS News)
Does NASA Data Show Global Warming Lost in Space? (FOX News)
No Debt Deal Could Lead to Doomsday Scenario? (ABC News)
Hip / Knee Replacements Faulty? (ABC News)
Billion Dollar Boondoggle? (ABC News)
Apple’s Iphone 5: First Look? (ABC News)
Time Travel in Photographs? (ABC News)

And that’s just a small example of only front page headlines! There are so many questions popping up in headlines that it can make you question your well-being.  Are there no answers in life?

So why is it that media feel the need to ask so many questions? Do they not have answers? Are they lazy?

The truth is that the questions serve as a hook to draw you into a story. When you see a question, you want the answer. So instead of saying, “Court System in Amanda Knox Case Needs Fixing” the headline is written “Amanda Knox – Victim of a Crazy Court System?” The result is that more people are likely to click and read the second article. Now that a question (versus typical healine) has been implanted in the user’s mind, they want to know the answer. I’m willing to bet that you have (or will) click on some of the headlines above to get an answer. After all, don’t you really really really want to now know whether the Smurfs are Crypto-Fascists or not? 🙂

The question-based headline sensation began with cable news TV. And it grew from there. It serves many effective purposes for news organizations:

1) It’s an effective hook to get a user to want to do what media companies want them to do (i.e. read an article or wait until after a commercial break on TV for an answer).
2) With controversial stories, it limits legal liability. “You’re honor, we didn’t say the Smurfs were Crypto-Fascists, we only asked if they were.”
3) It’s easier to write a question-based headline than a fact-based headline.
4) It works.

Let’s hope pharmaceutical companies don’t start using question-based headlines to skirt FCC rules on truth in advertising.

Can Allegra Cure Eyesight Problems Along with Allergies?
Does Viagra Cure Dandruff Too?
Flonase – The Best Allergy Medication Ever Created?

Even if there’s not an answer, psychologically the question-based headline has put the possibility into your mind.

My headline for this article was, “Are Media Asking Too Many Questions in Headlines?” Of course they are. We’ve seen news organizations, over the years, become more “entertainment” and “business” driven than in the past. It’s no longer the job of a news organization to just report fact-based news. Now they have to promote corporate programming. For example, why is it that CBS News does far more stories on the TV show Survivor than any other media outlet? It’s because Survivor airs on CBS. So it makes sense that more news organizations are employing psychological factors in how they present the news in order to get a reader/viewer to take a particular action. It’s no longer about reporting the news. It’s about psychologically manipulating the viewer. Or is it?

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