Is the answer to a question-marked headline always no?

No. Not always. Just quite often, like just now.

Looking at recent articles about the NHS picked up by @ImpatientNHS with question marks in their titles, there are several variants of the question-marked headline, and they don’t all mean ‘no’.

The cynical reason for asking a question in a headline is because the article doesn’t support an assertion – if it did, no need for the question mark. ‘End of the doctors surgery?’ – a Mail story reporting one from the Express – takes the idea that some appointments with GPs could take place electronically (which would be very convenient for many people), and implies that all will. “The new system of ‘virtual clinics’ favoured by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt could spell the end of traditional doctor’s surgeries” – use of words like ‘could’ and ‘spell’ are both further indicators of flakiness. After the first few sentences the story is basically fine, if it were headlined something like ‘Digital NHS plans worry the offline’.

There is another, more valid, variant of the question-marked headline: to make the case against someone else’s statement. An example of this would be ‘Can a big stick deliver EPR success?’, an insightful piece of analysis on EHI written by, er, my boss. The government is proposing to use a big stick on NHS trusts that don’t move quickly to bring in electronic patient records; EHI’s view is that this is not likely to work. (The NHS National Programme for IT foundered on exactly this.)

The knock-down is also used in ‘Could being kept in the dark cure lazy eye?’ from NHS Choices Behind the Headlines section, attempting to unpick a Mail story, ‘Keeping children with a lazy eye in the dark for ten days could help them see better’ – no question mark, although note use of the word ‘could’. One imagines the writers for NHS Choices shouting ‘it’s mine’ when another Mail story hits. This one relied on research on kittens.

But then there are the question-marked headlines which pose both sides of an argument, such as ‘Should over-40s be given IVF on NHS? The for and against arguments’ from the Mirror; those which try to answer a question, such as ‘What next for the NHS after the Mid Staffs scandal?’ on the Guardian Healthcare Professionals Network; and those which betray frustration, such as the Patient from Hell asking ‘Why is the NHS still using snail-mail?’, also on Guardian Healthcare Professionals Network.

And sometimes, the reason for a question-marked headline is ‘the writer thinks this, but the editor doesn’t want to commit’, which is quite a long way from ‘no’. Take ‘Is NHS consultation a futile exercise?’ from the Spenborough Guardian in Yorkshire: this headlines a letter, and the writer believes the answer is ‘definitely’. The question-marked headline removes the paper from adopting the view itself. Another way to do this is to put the statement in inverted commas.

So: is the answer to a question-marked headline ever yes?

Yes, it’s just rare. What it does indicate pretty reliably (when it’s not actually asking a question) is that the publication isn’t certain about the headline as a statement.

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