Yellow journalism is exaggerated or biased media reporting that is disguised as fact. Originating out of an intense competition between rival newspapers in the late 1800s, it involves taking a factual story and presenting it in a sensational or distorted way. It may be used to invoke fear, loathing, uncertainty or even sympathy in readers, but often, the bottom line is an attempt to boost sales or viewership and gain more market share. Although people generally regard this type of reporting as unprofessional and a violation of journalistic ethics, it appears frequently today, with perhaps the best example being tabloids.
Although the tactics that people in the media use to capture a reader or viewer's attention can vary a bit from location to location, typically, yellow media features very bold, large pictures and headlines, and layouts are designed to immediately grab the reader's interest. In the case of radio, Internet and television, journalists sometimes use flashing banners and sound alerts, as well. The company that is providing the news often openly promotes itself and tries to make itself look more credible by presenting "experts" who aren't truly qualified to provide information. Claims usually are exaggerated and melodramatic, and there generally are few to no citations.
Experts generally attribute the beginning of yellow journalism to William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The industrial revolution brought about a printing press that could create thousands of copies of a newspaper overnight. In 1895, Pulitzer's paper, New York World, was the top paper in New York City and the surrounding area. When Hearst bought the New York Journal, he quickly became Pulitzer's main competition.
The term yellow journalism came from a fight between the two journalists over cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault, who created a comic strip called "Hogan's Alley." It featured the Yellow Kid, a main character who was so called because he wore a big, yellow nightshirt. Hearst lured Outcault away from Pulitzer to create the comic strip in his paper, and Pulitzer then hired a second cartoonist to duplicate Outcault's work.
The competition between Hearst and Pulitzer quickly spiraled out of control, and soon, they were in a war over who could sell the most copies. To achieve this goal, they started using sensationalism, altering or completely making up the facts, and writing outrageous or emotional headlines to attract sales. This bid for market share came to a head during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Pulitzer and Hearst both had a huge role in how the American public viewed Cuba in its bid for independence from Spain. Through their papers, both journalists emphasized the wrong-doings of the Spanish army, breezing over any faults of the Cuban troops. They also called for United States intervention, leading to the country's involvement in the war. The conflict sometimes is referred to as the "media war" because of how strongly the publications altered public opinion.
Yellow journalism has been a feature of nearly every war in the 20th century, usually portraying the opposing side as evil, subhuman or similarly worth attacking. The media has been used not only for political gains, but to win social benefits, as well. Fear mongering and exaggeration of the facts is still a popular way to alter what people individually and collectively think.
Modern Yellow Journalism
Although this type of journalism is much less common now than it was in the early 1900s, it is still around. Some newspapers, magazines, Internet sites and even television news channels may present information with a spin on the facts to support their own views or to increase the number of readers or viewers. Shocking headlines still typically sell more papers than regular ones do.
Yellow journalism has stayed alive in media partly because, like Pulitzer and Hearst's papers, contemporary companies need to have good market share to stay profitable. A large number of free information sources, many of which are available online around the clock, are available that provide added competition. The response has been to be generally more accepting of drama, opinion and conflict pieces.
Concerns and Debate
Many professionals who work in media are concerned about yellow journalism from an ethical standpoint. They typically believe that the public always deserves the truth, and that this kind of reporting makes it hard to get it. A major worry is that it can pervert justice, leading people to opinions, decisions and actions that they wouldn't have or do if the journalist remained objective.
Despite this, some say that big headlines and dramatic content can draw attention to news elements that otherwise would not get much notice, which can be beneficial. The typical concentration on the underdog in the stories might help to correct power imbalances, and when successful, the reporting can keep a media company financially afloat. Supporters also assert that the approach journalists usually take is better at keeping audiences engaged.
Legal treatment of yellow journalism varies depending on location. In the United States, for example, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech and, therefore, essentially allows the media to have a very loose reign on their reporting. Even so, America does have laws related to liable and slander, which basically say that someone cannot damage a person or company's reputation by printing or saying something that isn't true. This helps keep sensationalist reporting contained a bit, but defamation lawsuits are notoriously hard to win. Many areas that are politically unstable have passed or are trying to pass regulations that would limit what and how journalists report.
How Readers Can Deal with Questionable Reporting
Checking facts and using several sources are both ways to determine whether something is really true or merely a product of yellow journalism. It also often helps for readers to analyze the news source and consider the reason for the particular spin on a story. Paying more attention to language — in particular, looking for adjectives that have specific connotations — is another strategy that often reveals bias. People who find that a news source isn't following good ethical standards can contact the media company with complaints or leave comments on online pieces that call out the sensationalism, lack of truth or citations, and similar problems.