Are You Guilty of Yellow Journalism?
Yellow journalism is defined as a type of writing that presents little or no legitimate well-researched information and instead uses eye-catching headlines or catch-phrases to make articles appear more enticing to potential readers.
The term yellow journalism derived from a popular New York World comic called "Hogan's Alley," which featured a character dressed in yellow named the "the yellow kid," but is actually rooted in the rivalry between two of America’s premier journalists and newspaper publishers, William Randolph Hurst and Joseph Pulitzer, during the 1890s. (The New York Press coined the term "yellow journalism" in early 1897 to describe the papers of Pulitzer and Hearst.)
Today, "yellow journalism" is used to describe unscrupulous styles of writing that convey what would be potentially valuable news or information in an unprofessional or unethical fashion including the use of unsubstantiated sources, exaggeration or fabrication of facts, opinion disguised as fact, self-promotion, and overt sensationalism. Techniques include:
> scary or misleading headlines
> over-use of pictures or imaginary drawings
> use of faked interviews
> pseudo-science disguised as scientific fact
> unqualified “expert” supportive arguments
> "underdog against the system” baiting
The historic model:
In 1883, millionaire writer and editor Joseph Pulitzer purchased the failing New York World after having made the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the dominant daily newspaper in that part of the country. Striving to make the World an entertaining and lucrative publication, Pulitzer filled his paper with a preponderance of pictures, games, and contests that drew in new readers. And knowing that many potential readers found crime stories exciting, devoted a large portion of his publication to murder and corruption coverage, using attention-grabbing headlines like "Was He a Suicide?" and "Screaming for Mercy." Two years after Pulitzer took over the New York World, it became the highest circulation newspaper in New York.
Traditional publishers across the country, upset by the method of Pulitzer's success, began criticizing the World for focusing on sensationalized crime stories while ignoring serious reporting. Pulitzer's “yellow” approach, however, made a powerful impression on the aspiring William Randolph Hearst, a mining heir who had acquired the San Francisco Examiner from his father in 1887. Having read Pulitzer’s New York World while studying at Harvard University, Hearst resolved to make the Examiner as successful as Pulitzer's paper. And under his editorial leadership, the Examiner devoted 24 percent of its space to crime, even resorting to reporting adultery and use of "nudity" on the front page.
A month after Hearst took over the paper, the Examiner ran this now infamous headline about a hotel fire: HUNGRY, FRANTIC FLAMES. They Leap Madly Upon the Splendid Pleasure Palace by the Bay of Monterey, Encircling Del Monte in Their Ravenous Embrace From Pinnacle to Foundation. Leaping Higher, Higher, Higher, With Desperate Desire. Running Madly Riotous Through Cornice, Archway and Facade. Rushing in Upon the Trembling Guests with Savage Fury. Appalled and Panic-Striken the Breathless Fugitives Gaze Upon the Scene of Terror. The Magnificent Hotel and Its Rich Adornments Now a Smoldering heap of Ashes. The Examiner Sends a Special Train to Monterey to Gather Full Details of the Terrible Disaster. Arrival of the Unfortunate Victims on the Morning's Train — A History of Hotel del Monte — The Plans for Rebuilding the Celebrated Hostelry — Particulars and Supposed Origin of the Fire.
With the Examiner's success established by the early 1890s, Hearst began shopping for a New York newspaper. (Many industry insiders assume the move was intentional to pit himself against Pulitzer.) In 1895 he purchased the New York Journal, a “penny” paper that Pulitzer's brother Albert had sold to a Cincinnati publisher the year before. Knowing that the rebellion that had recently broke out in Cuba had the potential to not only boost newspaper sales but move him into a position of national prominence, Hearst sent his best reporters to “report” on the war, resulting in a number stories crafted specifically to tug at the heartstrings of Americans; horrific tales describing executions in the concentration camps, the valiant rebels' fighting, and the female prisoners and children who were demoralized and starving due to the conflict. “Male Spanish Officials Strip Search an American Woman Tourist in Cuba Looking for Messages From Rebels,” one sensational headline read. Soon, stories of Cuban virtue and Spanish brutality dominated the front page.
But it was the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898 that gave Hearst his big story--war. When the invasion began, Hearst himself sailed directly to Cuba as a war correspondent, playing on sensational accounts of the fighting. Then with no evidence to support his claim, Hearst unequivocally blamed the Spanish, and soon US public opinion demanded intervention: an invasion. Journal sales rocketed, but Hearst was ultimately held responsible by many (and often credited himself) for causing America to enter a war they could have easily avoided.
After the war, Hearst became a very vocal Democrat who promoted William Jennings Bryan for president in 1900, continuing to employ yellow journalism to sway public opinion. With political aspirations of his own, he later ran for mayor and governor--and even sought the presidential nomination--but lost much of his personal prestige in 1901 when outrage exploded after New York Journal columnist Ambrose Bierce and editor Arthur Brisbane both published articles that suggested the possible assassination of president William McKinley. Subsequently, when McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901 (and subsequently died), critics pointed to Hearst's yellow journalism as driving McKinley’s assassin, Leon Frank Czolgosz, to the deed. Hearst stated that didn't know of Bierce's column, and claimed to have pulled Brisbane's after it ran in a first edition. (Many doubt this was the case.)
Continuing not only his rivalry with Pulitzer for the next decade but his yellow approach to journalism and newspaper sales, Hurst went on to own numerous print publications (and other media outlets), with his sensational style continuing to dominate not only many of his own publications, but is credited with spawning a wave of tabloid periodicals that became and remain mainstays throughout the country, as well as countless online publications who rely on yellow journalism for readership throughout the world.
Though greatly chided for resorting to yellow journalism to sell his newspapers, the name Joseph Pulitzer became associated with quality journalism shortly after his death in October of 1911, with New York World remembered as a widely respected publication, remaining a leading progressive paper until its demise in 1931. Upon his death, Pulitzer left a huge endowment to Columbia University to establish a school of journalism (which was built in 1912), and subsequently, the establishment of the Pulitzer Prize, awarded for exceptional writing and news coverage. The first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded June 4, 1917.
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