We define yellow journalism, while looking at its origin and how it is still a topic worthy of discussion in today’s media landscape.
We live in uncertain times and consume more media than we have before.
Top-notch journalism is as valuable as ever, but it has also become more vulnerable.
There is a constant stream of valuable information and sensationalist falsehoods on our social media streams. At times though, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the factual news stories and exaggerated nonsense.
That is not to say that the concept of ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’ are a new phenomena.
As long as media has existed, the world has been dealing with people using ‘news’ to further their agendas.
This term ‘fake news’ is in vogue at the moment. However, its older relative, ‘yellow journalism’, is just as common and may be even harder to battle against.
Although less well known than gonzo journalism, for those of you who don’t recognise the term, yellow journalism refers to a type of media reporting that focuses on sensationalism, rather than fact, to increase profit and circulation, or a given agenda.
Defining Yellow Journalism
The term ‘yellow journalism’ has its roots in a rivalry between two New York newspapers in the late 19th century, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s The New York Journal.
It was a time of hefty competition, with these publications using what has been described as “lurid features and sensationalized news” to increase overall circulation.
The term itself came directly from a comic strip printed by Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper. The cartoonist illustrated Mickey Dugan, ‘the Yellow Kid’, of the Hogan’s Alley comic strip.
Hearst then hired the illustrator to run the comic strip in his newspaper.
The New York Press critic was less than impressed with these newspapers and their form of sensation-first media and saw the commonality between the two publications. Thus, he coined the term ‘the yellow kid journalism’, which has since been shortened to ‘yellow journalism’.
Yellow Journalism and Tabloids
Yellow journalism has since become a moniker typically associated with a type of journalism used by tabloid-like publications to sway public opinion or increase profits.
Examples of it include misleading front-page headlines that focus on sensation rather than fact and newspaper reporting where lurid information is put in the public domain without being substantiated.
‘Click-bait’ journalism is another closer relative to this type of reporting. Here, there is a focus on gaining readers, rather than facts and quality journalism.
Spanish-American War And Yellow Journalism
Yellow journalism has been at the root of many conflicts.
W. Joseph Campbell, a professor of communication at American University in Washington, D.C., told the History Channel that yellow journalism was born from “a keen taste for self-promotion, and an inclination to take an activist role in news reporting.”
Never has this been more true than during the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in the late 19th-century. Public opinion was swayed by the coverage of the sinking of the U.S.S Marina in Cuba.
Headlines from media outlets such as “Who Destroyed the Maine? $50,000 Reward,” “Spanish Treachery” and “Invasion!” encouraged an appetite for conflict with Spain.
Any inclination for the public to move past the battleship incident in Havana Harbor in the Cuban capital was quickly dissolved.
Of course, many readers will look at that time as a heyday for yellow journalism. However, that is simply not the case.
Howard Kurtz discussed the media’s approach to the Iraq war on CNN’s website, pointedly reporting that “all too often, skepticism was checked at the door, and the shaky claims of top officials and unnamed sources were trumpeted as fact.”
A brief read through many of our popular tabloids or a look on many of our television channels and websites will tell you that yellow journalists and the yellow press are not a thing of the past. Sensationalist stories are everywhere and they are as popular as ever.
American journalism has come a long way from the days of those two prominent New York City newspaper publishers, but there is little doubt that the news media still has some way to go on that journey.
Resources For Journalists
FAQs About Yellow Journalism
What is yellow journalism in simple terms?
Yellow journalism is a type of reporting that focuses on sensationalism, rather than facts, to push profit, circulation, or agenda.
What is the difference between yellow journalism and responsible journalism?
Responsible journalism emphasises ethics and facts, whereas yellow journalism is primarily concerned with engaging the reader through excess and hyperbole.
What is an example of yellow journalism?
Reporting on the sinking of the USS Maine is an example of yellow journalism.
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