Journalism is supposed to be one of the most honorable professions. In fact, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution specifically prohibits the government from passing laws that restrict freedom of the press.
Over the course of history, however, some journalistic outlets have used their platforms irresponsibly. When members of the press abandon their principles, it can result in a sordid practice known as yellow journalism.
What Is Yellow Journalism?
Yellow journalism occurs when journalists publish sensationalized stories featuring dramatic details designed to attract readers. It is a practice that involves writing reports that are more designed to entertain and tantalize than to inform readers.
The term “yellow journalism” became popular in the 1890s when it was used to describe the methods used by two major New York City newspapers that competed over the city’s readers.
Joseph Pulitzer bought The New York World in 1883. He built the newspaper up with colorful and dramatic reporting that dealt with issues involving political corruption and injustice. The paper became the most popular journalistic outlet in the nation. However, Pulitzer’s organization would meet with competition in 1895 when William Randolph Hearst arrived on the scene.
Living in California, Hearst was inspired by the popularity and entertaining tone of Pulitzer’s The New York World. Hearst took over The San Francisco Examiner and he was determined to boost the newspaper’s circulation and profits. One way he did this was through “stunt” journalism – for example, one reporter, Winifred Black, disguised herself as a sick woman so she would get admitted to hospital. She wrote about the staff’s neglect of patients, and the result was the entire hospital staff being removed. Black was one of the paper’s “sob sisters” who became known for their ability to bring a tear to readers’ eyes.
Another method was to write things in a lurid or exciting way. One famous example of dramatic writing in Hearst’s paper describes a fire at the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey:
“HUNGRY, FRANTIC FLAMES. They Leap Madly Upon the Splendid Pleasure Palace by the Bay of Monterey, Encircling Del Monte in Their Ravenous Embrace From Pinnacle to Foundation. Leaping Higher, Higher, Higher, With Desperate Desire. Running Madly Riotous Through Cornice, Archway and Facade. Rushing in Upon the Trembling Guests with Savage Fury. Appalled and Panic-Striken the Breathless Fugitives Gaze Upon the Scene of Terror. The Magnificent Hotel and Its Rich Adornments Now a Smoldering heap of Ashes. The Examiner Sends a Special Train to Monterey to Gather Full Details of the Terrible Disaster.”
Hearst had already built The Examiner into a successful newspaper, but he soon set his eyes on New York City. He brought some of his employees from San Francisco to New York and hired away some of The World’s reporters, forming a new operation called The New York Journal.
One of the individuals that Hearst poached from Pulitzer was Richard F. Outcault, a cartoonist who drew a popular comic series titled The Yellow Kid. After agreeing to work for Hearst, Outcault brought his comic creation to the fledgling newspaper.
At this time, newspapers had begun using colored ink to print sections of their papers. They used a type of quick-drying yellow ink to print the clothing of the comic character. The term “yellow journalism” was named after this trend became more widely used by newspapers.
The New York Journal and The New York World aggressively battled for the nation’s readership through the use of colorful illustrations and provocative language. While it may have seemed like a harmless battle between two newspapers, the impact of this conflict had lasting consequences, including pushing the United States into war with Spain.
The Legacy of Yellow Journalism
At some point, the war between The New York World and The New York Journal ended, along with many of the sensationalist tactics used by both organizations. However, elements of the trend remained.
In recent years, it appears yellow journalism has made a reappearance, and not just with newspapers. Now, television and online news operations are engaging in many of the same tactics that were used by Hearst and Pulitzer.
When perusing the news online, one is bombarded with sensational and exaggerated headlines designed to provoke emotions and tempt readers to click through to the article. In the modern age of the internet, this is a practice known as “clickbait.” It lures readers in with a promise of a scandalous or outrageous story.
The tabloid headlines we see today, along with the “clickbait” of today’s online media, have roots in the yellow journalism of the 1890s and the newsstand battles between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.