Yellow journalism is a pejorative phrase used to describe inferior, careless or intentionally misleading reporting. Its origins can be traced to the rise of sensational journalism in the penny press, which reached a peak in the late 19th Century circulation wars in New York between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
It refers, more specifically, to a cartoon character drawn by R.F. Outcault that first appeared in Pulitzer’s paper in a strip called
Hogan’s Alley. The Yellow Kid, “…a toothless, grinning slum urchin who wore what looked like a yellow nightshirt,” (Cohen, 2000, p. 29) was supposed to represent New York tenement dwellers. The Kid’s nightshirt was frequently used to carry the cartoonist’s caption. Cohen (2000) explains: “…the term Yellow Journalism was born to describe the sort of journalism both papers regularly practiced” (p. 29).
The legacies of both the penny press in general and yellow journalism in particular are a topic of much debate. Scholars such as Kobre (1964) and Juergens (1966) tend to accord great formative power to this period in press history while others, such as Nerone (1987), suggest that the penny press, and its creature, yellow journalism, were logical extensions of previously existing trends in the market, technology, and society: “Most of the trends were rooted in forces that operated on the newspaper establishment as a whole, not just penny papers, and some penny papers did not follow dominant trends” (Nerone, 1987, p. 398).
Benjamin Day is recognized as the first publisher to launch a successful penny press newspaper, the New York Morning Sun, in 1833: “… he introduced new ideas for the content, sales, and distribution of newspapers, ideas that had wide-ranging implications for the rise of a mass-circulation press in New York and other major cities” (Bjork, 2008, p. 133). He also introduced what has been seen by some as a precursor to the yellow journalism that followed in the form of “…flippant coverage of police court news” (Juergens, 1966, p. 44). The penny papers aimed for a working class readership, were sold by newspaper carriers in the streets, and depended on advertising and circulation revenue for their survival. Spencer (2007) suggests that the penny press was responsible for the integration of advertising in newspapers that was to follow: “…the concept of advertising became a permanent part of the journalistic culture” (p. 28). It was also a time of significant immigration to New York City, and the penny publishers were keen to convert new citizens into daily readers. Sensational writing was a tool in this conversion. “Papers like (Pulitzer’s) the World, aware of the uncertain literacy of the new readers, splashed abundant pictures and bold headlines across each page, and urged upon their reporters the virtues of simple vocabulary and uncomplicated sentence structure” (Juergens, 1966, p. 47). The use of graphics and cartoons also increased as a way to appeal to readers with limited education. As Spencer (2007) notes, good artists were in demand: “With the stroke of a pen or brush they could communicate messages to even the partially literate…” (p. 206).
… the New York Sun (1833–1950) was also the first paper to employ newsboys as sales agents and the first to use a steam-powered press, rather than a hand-cranked one, to mass-print its copies. Its most important contribution, however, was to make newspapers of the 1830s accessible to the poorly paid common laborers of the day—both through its affordable price and its fresh, lively approach to news writing. (Fettman, 2008, pp. 336-337)
What Fettman (2008) describes as lively writing: shorter stories, with a focus on police court news and human interest items—anything that readers would find interesting (p. 337), has also been seen as the cultivation of a new approach in American journalism. Yellow journalism techniques were publicly derided but also copied, notes Campbell (2001), particularly for their tendency to increase circulation, provide exciting copy and a cause in the form of crusades against privilege and corruption (p. 52).
During the 1830s, the Penny Press, which appealed to the common man of the Jacksonian era, challenged the influence of the partisan newspapers. Sensational news articles sold papers, and, because of their low cost, the Penny Press newspapers were widely accessible to citizens. Here was news for the masses, not just the privileged. Many scholars hardly considered this new style of journalism an improvement. The historian Frank Luther Mott said of the Penny Press that its sins included “bad taste; coarseness, which sometimes became indecency, overemphasis on crime and sex; and disreputable advertising.” (Peck, 2008, p. 156)
Court cases in the middle of the previous century laid the groundwork for this approach by establishing truth as a defense for journalists, thus:
…when editors, publishers, and commentators no longer feared that a stint in prison could follow a damaging article, they began to explore the limits of public tolerance, all in a desire to accumulate readership that in turn would result in higher circulations and thus higher financial returns. (Spencer, 2007, p. 22)
One of the most notorious of these explorations is what would later come to be known as the moon hoax. In 1835, the Sun published a series of stories purporting to reveal human-like creatures living on the moon. The stories and subsequent controversy boosted circulation significantly: “The episode suggested that entertaining readers could be more profitable than merely giving them the ‘facts’ ” (Bjork, 2008, p. 134). This was a lesson not lost on competing elite papers. Campbell (2001) notes that more than sixty years later, “conservative papers of the time carried a fair amount of oddball material as well. Sea serpents were a particular fascination of the time” (p. 37). Having laid the groundwork with moon men and sea serpents, fomenting war was not much of a stretch for the yellow journalists of the penny press.
There is some debate as to whether yellow journalism and sensationalistic coverage in the New York papers prompted the U.S. to declare war on Spain in 1898. There were certainly repeated, jingoistic calls, particularly from Hearst’s Journal, for the U.S. to drive Spain out of Cuba. Scholars are divided, however, on whether the yellow press, or even the more conservative papers, persuaded politicians or led public opinion (Ericson, 2008, p. 495). According to Kobre (1964), the coverage that whipped up sentiment in the U.S. for a Spanish-American conflict: “…was the climax of Gilded Age sensational journalism” drawing on all the emotional elements that would later be generally identified with sensationalistic journalism (Kobre, 1964, p. 279). However, others, including Spencer (2007) argue that while the Journal and Pulitzer’s World certainly used war fervor in their circulation battle, “…to assert that these two journalistic enterprises were capable of dragging a reluctant nation into battle is both misleading and erroneous” (Spencer, 2007, p. 124). One of the newspaper design elements that rose to prominence in the midst of the war furor, and is commonly associated with yellow journalism, is the banner headline: “…a headline stretching across the entire top of the page” (Kobre, 1964, p. 294). Much as writing in all capitals in an email is considered equivalent to shouting, so were these huge headlines considered in the coverage of the Spanish-American war. Juergens (1966) suggests that much of the emphasis on the front page as a showcase of newspaper content also evolved during the yellow era when importance shifted from subscription sales to individual copy sales on the street (p. 48). Although Nerone cautions that this effect may be overemphasized and that subscription sales tended to play a large part in newspaper revenues even for the penny papers (Nerone, 1987, p. 384). It has been suggested that Hearst intended to launch a run at the presidency using the Spanish-American war as an issue and the Journal as a soapbox, however Cohen (2000) argues that the approach backfired: yellow journalism “… attracted huge numbers of readers, but it was never respectable. People might want to read what Hearst said, but he wasn’t the sort of person they wanted to vote for” (Cohen, 2000, p. 35).
Yellow press legacy
Yellow journalism was an offspring of the penny press that was itself made possible by technological improvements in printing, and societal changes such as immigration and an expanding market economy, which provided a growing readership and an economic basis for success.
[The penny papers]…were truly the first papers for the masses, the common folk. They had been made possible by an increase in literacy among the general population, who provided a market, as well as by improvements both in printing presses and paper production that made publication cheaper and easier. (Cohen, 2000, p. 12)
Kobre (1964) makes the case that the so-called gilded age papers were motivated to produce copies more quickly, cheaply and at higher reproduction quality to aid in their circulation battles. This is consistent with Nerone’s (1987) view that penny papers participated in and possibly accentuated trends that were already present in the newspaper industry rather than initiating them. He suggests that much of the mythology of the penny press puts the cart before the horse. That is, it was not the penny press that changed society, but changes in society—particularly in the police courts, on Wall Street and Broadway—which allowed the success of the penny press’ style of coverage.
The evolution of the social organizations that produced news was an essential precondition for the news content of the penny press. By mythologizing the penny press, writers have tended to make it a heroic agent of social change rather than a product of social forces. Change in the medium was the result of changes in society and was reflected in conventional and penny papers alike. (Nerone, 1987, p. 396)
And while Nerone argues that much of penny press mythology is based on anecdote rather than fact, he allows: “There is no doubt that the unique culture of the penny press left a legacy for U.S. journalism as a whole” (p. 402). Yellow journalism is clearly a part of that legacy which reflects market forces at work in late 19th Century America, cultural and political changes brought about by a rapidly expanding population, and printing technologies that made it all possible.
(Note: Images are from Wikimedia Commons. Both are public domain, published in the United States prior to Jan. 1, 1923.)
Bjork, U.J. (2008). Day, Benjamin. In Encyclopedia of American Journalism. (p. 133). New York: Routledge.
Campbell, W.J. (2001). Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
Cohen, D. (2000). Yellow Journalism: Scandal, Sensationalism, and Gossip in the Media. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books.
Fettman, E. (2008). New York Sun. In Encyclopedia of American Journalism. (pp. 336-337). New York: Routledge.
Juergens, G. (1966). Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Kobre, S. (1964). The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism. Gainesville, Fla.: Florida State University.
Nerone, J. C. (1987). The Mythology of the Penny Press. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 4(4), 376.
Peck, L.A. (2008). Ethics. In Encyclopedia of American Journalism. (p. 156). New York: Routledge.
Spencer, D.R. (2007). The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.