Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 27, 2016
My friend, the late Jerry Flowers (8 January 1947 – 7 November 2016), used the rallying cry, “Commit journalism” to move his friends to action. It was one of the things I remember most fondly about conversations with Jerry who believed in promoting the highest ideals regardless of the profession in which one was engaged.
The complete opposite from the kind of journalism is yellow journalism. Yellow journalism is sensationalist, exaggerated reporting that relies heavily on distorted stories that have little to no legitimate facts. It also uses unnamed sources to provide believable sound bites and the stories are published with scandalous headlines to draw attention to itself. Reporting lies and rumors as fact is a large part of yellow journalism. The major focus of yellow journalism is to excite public opinion and to sell more newspapers than might otherwise be sold.
Yellow journalism is easy to spot as it generally has all five of these characteristics which are easily identifiable.
- Fearmongering headlines in large print;
- Pictures that are used out-of-context to lend credence to the fake story;
- Pseudoscience, fake interviews, and/or false information from alleged experts;
- Scare tactics and highly charged emotional words and symbols used; and
- Dramatic sympathy for the underdog fighting the system in an effort to get the word out.
You may assume that yellow journalism is a term that came about during WWII and that it was an insult aimed at the Japanese. You would be incorrect if that was your guess as to where the term originated. The term yellow journalism goes back much further than WWII.
Back in the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst (29 April 1863 – 14 August 1951) was the owner and publisher of the New York Journal newspaper, and József Pulitzer (10 April 1847 – 29 October 1911) was the owner and publisher of the New York World newspaper. The techniques of yellow journalism have their humble beginnings in the New York World newspaper in the 1880s although the term yellow journalism hadn’t been invented yet.
In the Spring of 1893, the New York World ran a popular cartoon strip about life in New York’s slums and this cartoon strip, drawn by Richard F. Outcault, was titled, “Hogan’s Alley.” The break-out character from the cartoon strip was the Yellow Kid. William Randolph Hearst hired Richard F. Outcault (14 January 1863 – 25 September 1928) away from the New York World to draw the cartoon for his newspaper. József Pulitzer hired a new cartoonist who continued to draw the cartoon for his newspaper.
The competition between the newspapers raged on with each newspaper trying to outdo the other right down to the Yellow Kid. It wasn’t long before the sensationalist stories and outrageous pictures in both newspapers became known as the competition of the “yellow kids.” Shortly thereafter, such journalism was labeled yellow journalism.
When the U.S. battleship Maine was sunk in the Havana harbor in Cuba, the rush was on to get a newspaper out that would outsell the competitor. Since both newspapers had fanned the anti-Spanish public opinion flames for years, the publishers felt it was to them to beat their competitor to the news stands. The publishers directed their reporters to write stories intended to tug at the heartstrings of Americans.
An illustrator by the name of Frederic Sackrider Remington (October 4, 1861 – December 26, 1909) worked for William Randolph Hearst and was stationed in Havana. He sent a cable to William Randolph Hearst that read: “Everything is quiet. No trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return. Remington.”
In response, William Randolph Hearst cabled back, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war. Hearst.”
Both newspapers carried all manner of atrocities from scandals to the Buldensuppe mystery (where a man was allegedly found headless, armless, and legless) leading up to the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine. Once the battleship was sunk, every atrocity was fair game for publication: Female prisoners, executions, rebels fighters, starving children, and American women stripped naked by soldiers.
It wasn’t long before there were countless other tabloids hitting the market, and each of them tried to out tall tale tell each other with their stories. However, the two newspapers responsible for this style of reporting, were at the head of their class, and yellow journalism flourished.
The expression yellow journalism therefore dates back to the days of William Randolph Hearst and József Pulitzer and the mid-1890s.