Writing Glossary

What is Yellow Journalism?

August 30, 2023 by

Yellow journalism has been a controversial topic in the history of media.

It is known for sensationalizing news to increase circulation and revenue but at the expense of accuracy and objectivity.

In this article, we’ll be diving into everything you need to know about yellow journalism.

We’ll be covering the following topics in this guide:

Table of Contents

What is Yellow Journalism?

Yellow journalism is a form of sensationalized, grotesquely dramatized, over-hyped, and exaggerated form of reporting that is intended to appeal to the reader’s emotions in a direct manner.

Publications and practitioners of yellow journalism throw all principles of balanced, fair, and objective reporting out of the window.

Instead choose to lie by omission, present facts in a non-contextual way, and even go to the length of fabricating stories in search of more viewers and readership.

Facts are presented in a packaged, easy-to-consume style that appeals to the base and emotional sides of our psyche.

Yellow journalism is not inquisitive, investigative, or makes you curious in any intellectual way; it’s supposed to make you suspend intelligence and invest in the story emotionally, leading you eventually to make decisions that are emotionally charged.

In the print, the tabloids are the epitome of yellow journalism.

The way the headlines just jump at you out of the page is a hallmark of yellow journalism that is heavily used in tabloids.

The reader is not presented with facts to infer his/her own analysis. Rather, like a dose of empty calories, readers are fed on a diet of misinformation, emotionally appealing information, and stereotypical generalizations.

Fake news abounds in today’s underregulated online media landscape.

fake news in newspaper

But the predecessor to modern-day fake news was yellow journalism which was practiced by media owners and operators to increase profits at the altar of journalistic objectivity.

Yellow journalism, as in the reporting that relies less on facts and appeals entirely to our emotions — has been around ever since the concept of news as a commodity sold for profit existed.

But the true origins of the term ‘yellow journalism’ can be traced back to the competition for readership between two of New York’s biggest publications in the city’s news market space.

The origin story of yellow journalism involved the owners of those two publications:

A cartoonist, and a real war between Spain and the US, which was instigated by the factless reporting of the papers.

In this article, we will define and understand yellow journalism, and learn why is it such a derogatory term.

Find out how it led to the Spanish-American War, and finally, we will consider examples, both contemporary and old, of yellow journalism in practice.

Examples of Yellow Journalism

Here are a few examples of yellow journalism:

1. Spanish-American War Coverage (Late 19th Century)

During the late 1800s, prominent newspapers like the New York Journal and the New York World engaged in exaggerated reporting to influence public opinion regarding the Spanish-American War.

These papers used sensational headlines and stories to portray Spain negatively and create a sense of urgency for U.S. intervention in the conflict.

2. Coverage of the Maine Explosion (1898)

The sinking of the USS Maine, an event that played a role in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War, was covered sensationally by newspapers.

They published stories that implied or directly claimed that the explosion was the result of a deliberate act by Spain, even though the cause of the explosion was uncertain at the time.

3. Yellow Kid Cartoon (1890s)

The “Yellow Kid” was a popular cartoon character featured in competing newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

The term “yellow journalism” is said to have originated from the Yellow Kid’s comic strip due to the sensationalist nature of the stories around it.

4. Crime Reporting with Exaggeration

Newspapers have historically exaggerated crime stories to attract readership.

For example, they might embellish details about a criminal’s actions or motives, using emotionally charged language to elicit fear and outrage from readers.

5. Celebrity Scandals and Gossip

Some modern tabloid publications often rely on sensationalism to report on celebrity scandals, focusing on salacious details and speculative stories rather than verified information.

This can include invasive paparazzi photos, unfounded rumors, and clickbait headlines.

6. Health and Wellness Articles with Unsupported Claims

Some media outlets might publish health-related articles with exaggerated or misleading claims to attract readers seeking quick solutions or sensational information. These articles may promote unproven treatments or present preliminary research as established fact.

7. Nanook of the North

A silent movie from 1922 called Nanook of the North has an entirely fabricated storyline that depicts the life struggles of Eskimos in the North.

One of the earliest documentary films on record, Nanook of the North has been front and center of controversy ever since its release.

In case you want to check it out, here it is:

Although the director Robert Flaherty claimed to have produced the first real depiction of the kind of life experienced by the Eskimos.

It was later found that Nanook was a fictional character and so were the members of his family who were cast to fit the various roles.

In America, we have come to a point where the media represents either one of the two political spectrums, the right or the left.

There is no longer room for objective and fact-based reporting due to the anchors’ loyalties tilting to one of either side.

Why is it Called Yellow Journalism?

Back in late 19th-century New York, two publications were in the midst of a war for subscribers in the New York news market.

The New York World and New York Journal were owned and operated by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, respectively.

Pulitzer’s cartoonist, Richard F. Outcault, in 1895, had created and ran a highly successful comic in the New York World that featured a little kid with a big yellow nightshirt.

The comic was called Hogan’s Alley. The main attraction of Hogan’s Alley was the yellow kid that was single-handedly responsible for skyrocketing New York World’s profits and readership.

Hearst, who was falling behind Pulitzer in the race because of the popularity of the yellow kid, lured Richard Outcault out of Pulitzer’s camp into his own with hefty monetary incentives.

Pulitzer, who was determined to win at all costs, hired a new cartoonist and kept publishing the yellow kid comic.

A ‘yellow kid war’ of the two publications ensued after Richard Outcault lost a legal battle with Pulitzer to retain copyrights over the yellow kid comic.

The yellow kid was featured in both publications from then on, leading to a relentless race between the two publications to produce the most sensationalized version of the comic.

fake and fact yellow journalism

Eventually, in their bid to outdo each other, the competition lead to new lows in journalistic integrity and objectivity.

Facts were regularly distorted and dramatized to fit fictitious versions of events so that reading the newspaper wasn’t boring — or dry but full of laughs, insults, scandals, and exciting news stories.

This kind of journalism will soon bring Spain and the US head-to-head in Cuba and the Philippines towards the close of the 19th century.

What is the Impact of Yellow Journalism?

Journalism is a serious profession that holds those in power to scrutiny and relays essential information to the masses for awareness so that people can make informed decisions.

In a democracy, the value of objective and fair journalism cannot be overstated.

However, yellow journalism, on the other hand, is like a yellow stain on the white fabric of journalistic integrity and objectivity.

Tinged with biased reporting, yellow journalism serves only one purpose: raking in as much viewership as one possibly can.

The impact of yellow journalism then is a viewership that is in the dark about the true facts of a story.

It is in the interest of the owners of such publications to keep us engaged in stories that have little to do with the future of the world.

The ruling establishment allows and abets yellow journalism for their own ends like smearing dirt on their opponents.

Keeping the masses occupied in irrelevant fluff pieces, and ‘manufacturing consent’ when the ruling establishment requires it through a mass hysteria of patriotism.

How Did Yellow Journalism Lead to the Spanish American War?

In the last years of the 19th century, the US and Spain went to war over Cuba. The role the American media played in starting the war is significant.

It was the rivalry between the New York World and New York Journal that was eventually responsible for whipping up the war hysteria.

Both the journals were in a tight race for readership numbers, so journalistic ethics and integrity went out of the window

And the stories that got reported were slathered with a lot of sensationalizing details.

Cuba at the time was witnessing a revolutionary uprising against the Spanish colonials.

It was also in the interest of the United States to oust Spain from the American continent.

But America of the 19th century was a pacifist that had little to do with foreign wars. The public had little to do with what was happening in Cuba.

The two newspapers reported the stories coming out of Cuba in gory details, leading the public to take the Cuban side in the uprising.

Moreover, the war between the two papers reached a fever pitch in tandem with the developments in Cuba.

The journalism in both papers turned increasingly yellow to the point where they started printing stories that lacked evidence.

The event that finally led to the war was the sinking of the USS Maine off Havana harbor.

Later investigations revealed that the explosion had occurred on the ship rather than being caused by a torpedo as was alleged by the newspapers.

But the damage had been done. The public, which had already been sensitized to the atrocities committed by the Spanish on the poor

Cubans were whipped into a war frenzy that led to the American-Spanish war that concluded in Cuban independence and unchallenged American domination in the continent.

Does Yellow Journalism Exist Today?

Yes. Yellow journalism exists today, but with a different name: fake news.

Fake news is an attempt at fabrication, misquoting, and misrepresentation of facts with the intent to mislead.

The impact of yellow journalism today is far greater than what was possible in the old days.

With the advancements in media technologies, especially the rise of online journalism and online media platforms,

Fake news has become a weapon of soft power to malign, defame, and publicly shame opponents.

Countries around the world use some form of yellow journalism to peddle their own narratives

And try to influence the global audience either against an enemy country or to win support for theirs.

Fox News, the Daily Mail, and numerous social and online news accounts continually display clickbaity news pieces and retain viewers by reporting on salacious and sentimental content.

yellow journalism fake news

To further explore the subject of yellow journalism, we also recommend this video by Mutant Fox:

Final Remarks

Yellow journalism is not a modern phenomenon.

The fact that yellow journalism is deeply impactful in the sense that it can reshape public opinion, should be a cause for concern.

Fake news — yellow journalism’s modern iteration — is even more deadly considering its reach and the way it hooks the viewers.

Journalism is a profession where the commitment to the ideals of truth should be upheld at all times, otherwise yellow journalism can lead us to repercussions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it called yellow journalism?

The term originated from the color of the comic strip, The Yellow Kid, which was used by newspapers to increase circulation.

What is the opposite of yellow journalism?

The opposite of yellow journalism is generally considered to be “objective journalism” or “journalism with integrity,” which involves reporting the facts accurately and fairly, without sensationalism or bias.

Does yellow journalism exist today?

Yes, some critics argue that elements of yellow journalism still exist today in certain media outlets and reporting styles, particularly in sensationalized or biased coverage of news events.