Yellow journalism is a term coined in the late 19th century by Erwin Wardman, the editor of the New York Press. It is most commonly associated with the newspaper owners William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and the stories published within their papers.
The main characteristics of yellow journalism include extensive use of images, full colour Sunday supplements and banner headlines. However the fundamental aspect is sensationalism. This style of journalism emerged when Hearst challenged Pulitzer’s New York World for circulation figures when he purchased the New York Journal in 1895. Pulitzer had owned the New York World from 1883 and had managed to boost circulation figures from fifteen thousand to a quarter of a million in just three years.
A particular success for the World was the release of “The Yellow Kid”, the first cartoon strip in the paper in 1895, and Hearst would soon realise the value of this. Erwin Wardman claims that this is why he branded it yellow journalism but others say it was more slanderous than that. It featured in the World until 1898, however, during this time Hearst had offered Richard F. Outcault, the World’s cartoonist, more money to draw for the New York Journal. He had successful poached Outcault and he left the New York World in 1896; this is when the battle commenced.
The cartoon was used to sway public opinion on issues,
such as the Spanish-American war. A key example of yellow journalism at the time was the Journal’s coverage
Editorial cartoon, Leon Barritt, 1898
of this war. The journal was the first paper to have a team of reporters in Cuba monitoring events. Any incidents of cruelty or brutality were published to influence the public. The story that was run stated that Spanish police boarded an American ship in Cuba and searched three female passengers. Naturally there was outcry about the treatment of the female passengers and them being searched by male policemen. What Hearst had failed to include was that they had been searched by Matrons but in order to sell more papers he had deliberately left out vital information to ensure scandal. Hearst saw the war as the perfect opportunity to boost sales, which he successfully did as nearly a million papers of this issue were sold but its content was not true.
Although both Pulitzer and Hearst are associated with yellow journalism, Hearst seems to take the brunt of historian’s criticism. The opinion of historians on the effect and morality of yellow journalism is divided. Many argue that this style of journalism shows how effective they were, in particular Hearst, at creating news stories when there was no news. This appears to be an optimistic version of the counter argument that they simply made stories up or sensationalised the headlines of seemingly mundane articles to attract audiences.
Outside of the journalism sphere, it was also argued that Pulitzer and Hearst had too much influence over the public. Some historians believe that Hearst had a large role in America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War. Audiences trusted them despite being fed sensationalised stories by them which although was an achievement for Hearst and Pulitzer, could have been potentially dangerous to allow people to have such power without official responsibility.
Another perspective is that many people knew the stories published in these papers were not the truth but chose to read it anyway. This, in some ways, is very similar to the tabloid situation in journalism today which leads to the question, is the key for print journalism to gain and maintain a mass audience simply to entertain them?