It's an engaging image — the four leading men in the IT soap opera pledging themselves to each other and a giant sex android at a secret ceremony.
Indeed, just by raising the possibility, I've already opened the question as to whether or not it may be true. And by putting the question mark at the end, I've already flagged that it probably isn't.
As if Steve Jobs would have anything to do with an android. No such rite has taken place, although I haven't searched the web to check (People exist who write erotic fiction on LiveJournal around exactly such scenarios. There are limits to what I'll do for journalism). But the art of the misleading headline, although by no means invented with the Web, is reaching its peak online.
That's thanks to Google and its journalistic offspring Google News, which turned eight yesterday. Whereas a newspaper headline has to compete with at most twenty or so other titles on the newstand, a Web story may be up against hundreds in a search — and a search that can be repeated and refined in seconds. So the temptation to go past the limits of acceptable hyperbole, just to get the hits, is strong: it gets stronger when one realises that even if the reader feels suckered by what lies in the main text, they're just as likely to fall for it again. Search driven news isn't very site specific.
We don't do that here — well, with exceptions like this. But here are five ways to spot whether a headline and a story are trying to make you think one thing while actually saying another:
1. The headline ends with a question mark. If you've got news, say it in the headline. You only ask a question if the answer's no. To check, mentally take the question mark off and see if the headline promises more that way. If that headline could be written without the ?, it would have been.
2. Count up the coulds and mays in the first couple of paragraphs. News is about something that's happened, not something that may happen. New baked bean technology could lead to smaller iPods isn't necessarily bad as a headline — but if the story itself doesn't let you know how likely it is, you've been sold a pup. This is especially bad in IT reporting, where research-driven companies need to get a consumer-friendly angle on something that is otherwise hard to explain for a general readership.
3. The story quotes experts while being coy about their expertise. If a Nobel Prize winner tells a journalist "The world will be eaten by an interstellar sloth in three days", you can be sure the story will say the man's won the world's top prize for star beast gazing. But if he's just referenced as "Space Sloth expert Dr David Furry", then there's something you're not supposed to know. Check the game - google the name.
4. The story uses statistics, especially in a publication that's not notably maths-literate. On ZDNet UK, we're pretty sure a lot of our readers aren't scared by real numbers (a fair few won't have a complex about the imaginary sort), and we try to do them right. Stats are notoriously difficult to understand properly, and thus easy to use for support rather than illumination.
5. The headline doesn't come from here. After all, we'd never end anything significant on a question mark. Or would we?