Yellow journalism is a pejorative reference to journalism that features scandal-mongering, sensationalism, jingoism or other unethical or unprofessional practices by news media organizations or individual journalists.

The term originated during the circulation battles between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal from 1895 to about 1898, and can refer specifically to this period. Both papers were accused by critics of sensationalizing the news in order to drive up circulation, although the newspapers did serious reporting as well. The New York Press coined the term "Yellow Journalism" in early 1897 to describe the papers of Pulitzer and Hearst. The newspaper did not define the term, and in 1898 simply elaborated, "We called them Yellow because they are Yellow."[1]

Origins: Pulitzer v. Hearst[]

Journalism has been attacked for excess and sensationalism since the 1790s.

Joseph Pulitzer purchased the World in 1882 after making the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the dominant daily in that city. The publisher had gotten his start editing a German-language publication in St. Louis, and saw a great untapped market in the nation's immigrant classes. Pulitzer strove to make The World an entertaining read, and filled his paper with pictures, games and contests that drew in readers, particularly those who used English as a second language. Crime stories filled many of the pages, with headlines like "Was He A Suicide?" and "Screaming for Mercy."[2] In addition, Pulitzer only charged readers two cents per issue but gave readers eight and sometimes 12 pages of information (the only other two-cent paper in the city never exceeded four pages).[3]

While there were many sensational stories in the World, they were by no means the only pieces, or even the most dominant ones. Pulitzer believed that newspapers were public institutions with a duty to improve society, and he put the World in the service of social reform. During a heat wave in 1883, World reporters went into the Manhattan's tenements, writing stories about the appalling living conditions of immigrants and the toll the heat took on the children. Stories headlined "How Babies Are Baked" and "Lines of Little Hearses" spurred reform and drove up the World's circulation.[4]

Just two years after Pulitzer took it over, the World became the highest circulation newspaper in New York, aided in part by its strong ties to the Democratic Party.[5] Older publishers, envious of Pulitzer's success, began criticizing the World, harping on its crime stories and stunts while ignoring its more serious reporting -- trends which influenced the popular perception of yellow journalism, both then and now. Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun, attacked The World and said Pulitzer was "deficient in judgment and in staying power."[6]

Pulitzer's approach made an impression on William Randolph Hearst, a mining heir who acquired the San Francisco Examiner from his father in 1887. Hearst read the World while studying at Harvard University and resolved to make the Examiner as bright as Pulitzer's paper.[7]. Under his leadership, the Examiner devoted 24 percent of its space to crime, presenting the stories as morality plays, and sprinkled adultery and "nudity" (by 19th century standards) on the front page.[8] A month after taking over the paper, the Examiner ran this 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 -- Pariculars and Supposed Origin of the Fire.[9]

Hearst could go overboard in his crime coverage; one of his early pieces, regarding a "band of murderers," attacked the police for forcing Examiner reporters to do their work for them. But while indulging in these stunts, the Examiner also increased its space for international news, and sent reporters out to uncover municipal corruption and inefficiency. In one celebrated story, Examiner reporter Winifred Black was admitted into a San Francisco hospital and discovered that indigent women were treated with "gross cruelty." The entire hospital staff was fired the morning the piece appeared.[10]

New York[]

With the Examiner's success established by the early 1890s, Hearst began shopping for a New York newspaper. Hearst purchased the New York Journal in 1895, a penny paper which Pulitzer's brother Albert had sold to a Cincinnati publisher the year before.

Metropolitan newspapers started going after department store advertising in the 1890s, and discovered the larger circulation base, the better. This drove Hearst; following Pulitzer's earlier strategy, he kept the Journal's price at one cent (compared to The World's two cent price) while providing as much information as rival newspapers.[11] The approach worked, and as the Journal's circulation jumped to 150,000, Pulitzer cut his price to a penny, hoping to drive his young competitor (who was subsidized by his family's fortune) into bankruptcy. In a counterattack, Hearst raided the staff of the World in 1896. While most sources say that Hearst simply offered more money, Pulitzer -- who had grown increasingly abusive to his employees -- had become an extremely difficult man to work for, and many World employees were willing to jump for the sake of getting away from him.[12]

Although the competition between the World and the Journal was fierce, the papers were temperamentally alike. Both were Democratic, both were sympathetic to labor and immigrants (a sharp contrast to publishers like the New York Tribune's Whitelaw Reid, who blamed their poverty on moral defects[13]), and both invested enormous resources in their Sunday publications, which functioned like weekly magazines, going beyond the normal scope of daily journalism.[14]

Their Sunday entertainment features included the first color comic strip pages, and some theorize that the term yellow journalism originated there, while as noted above the New York Press left the term it invented undefined. The Yellow Kid, a comic strip revolving around a bald child in a yellow nightshirt, became exceptionally popular when cartoonist Richard Outcault began drawing it in the World in early 1896. When Hearst predictably hired Outcault away, Pulitizer asked artist George Luks to continue the strip with his characters, giving the city two Yellow Kids.[15] The use of "yellow journalism" as a synonym for over-the-top sensationalism in the U.S. apparently started with more serious newspapers commenting on the excesses of "the Yellow Kid papers." (See also symbolism of yellow§

Spanish-American War[]


Male Spanish officials strip search an American woman tourist in Cuba looking for messages from rebels; front page "yellow journalism" from Hearst (artist: Remington)

Pulitzer and Hearst are wrongly credited (or blamed) for drawing the nation into the Spanish-American War with sensationalist stories or outright lying. The vast majority of Americans did not live in New York City, and the decision makers who did live there probably relied more on staid newspapers like the Times, The Sun or the Post. The most famous example of the exaggeration is the apocryphal story that artist Frederic Remington telegrammed Hearst to tell him all was quiet in Cuba and "There will be no war." Hearst responded "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." The story (a version of which appears in Citizen Kane) first appeared in the memoirs of reporter James Creelman in 1901, and there is no other source for it.

But Hearst was a war hawk after a rebellion broke out in Cuba in 1895. Stories of Cuban virtue and Spanish brutality soon dominated his front page. While the accounts were of dubious accuracy, the newspaper reader of the 19th century did not need, or necessarily want, his stories to be pure nonfiction. Historian Michael Robertson has said that "Newspaper reporters and readers of the 1890s were much less concerned with distinguishing among fact-based reporting, opinion and literature."[16]


Pulitzer's treatment in the World emphasizes horrible explosion


Hearst's treatment was more effective and focused on the enemy who set the bomb--and offered a huge reward to readers

Pulitzer, though lacking Hearst's resources, kept the story on his front page. The yellow press covered the revolution extensively and often inaccurately, but conditions on Cuba were horrific enough. The island was in a terrible economic depression, and Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, sent to crush the rebellion, herded Cuban peasants into concentration camps and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Having clamored for a fight for two years, Hearst took credit for the conflict when it came: A week after the United States declared war on Spain, he ran "How do you like the Journal's war?" on his front page.[17] In fact, President William McKinley never read the Journal, and newspapers like the Tribune and the New York Evening Post, both staunchly Republican, demanded restraint. Moreover, journalism historians have noted that yellow journalism was largely confined to New York City, and that newspapers in the rest of the country did not follow their lead. The Journal and the World were not among the top ten sources of news in regional papers, and the stories simply did not make a splash outside Gotham. [18] War came because public opinion was sickened by the bloodshed, and because conservative leaders like McKinley realized that Spain had lost control of Cuba. These factors weighed more on the president's mind than the melodramas in the New York Journal.[19]

Hearst sailed directly to Cuba, when the invasion began, as a war correspondent, providing sober and accurate accounts of the fighting. [20] Creelman later praised the work of the reporters for exposing the horrors of Spanish misrule, arguing, " no true history of the war . . . can be written without an acknowledgment that whatever of justice and freedom and progress was accomplished by the Spanish-American war was due to the enterprise and tenacity of yellow journalists, many of whom lie in unremembered graves."[21]

After the war[]

Hearst placed his newspapers at the service of the Democrats during the 1900 presidential election. He later campaigned for his party's presidential nomination, but lost much of his personal prestige when columnist Ambrose Bierce and editor Arthur Brisbane published separate columns months apart that called for the assassination of McKinley. When McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901, the Republican press went livid, accusing Hearst of driving Leon Czolgosz to the deed. Hearst did not know of Bierce's column and claimed to have pulled Brisbane's after it ran in a first edition, but the incident would haunt him for the rest of his life and all but destroyed his presidential ambitions.[22]

Pulitzer, haunted by his "yellow sins,"[23] returned the World to its crusading roots as the new century dawned. By the time of his death in 1911, the World was a widely-respected publication, and would remain a leading progressive paper until its demise in 1931.

In popular culture[]

In many movies, sitcoms and other works of fiction, reporters often use yellow journalism against the main character, which typically works to set up the reporter character as an antagonist.

For instance in the Spider-Man franchise, publisher J. Jonah Jameson spitefully and constantly smears the superhero in his Daily Bugle despite having his suspicions repeatedly proven wrong. Likewise, in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, an evil media magnate tries to start a war between Great Britain and China via sensationalized news stories; in the movie, the villain even alludes to Hearst's role in the Spanish-American War. In Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon, from the Hannibal Lecter series, a sleazy yellow journalist named Freddy Lounds, who writes for the National Tattler tabloid, is tortured and set aflame for penning a negative article about serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.

In the movie Bob Roberts, Senator Roberts characterises media investigations into his business dealings (and particularly the links between his anti-drugs charity and CIA drug trafficking) as "yellow journalism".


The term has largely fallen into disuse as the media world has grown both in scope and in complexity.

The gentler pejorative "infotainment" was coined more recently to refer to generally inoffensive news programming that shuns serious issues, but blends "soft" journalism and entertainment rather than emphasizing more important news values. When infotainment involves celebrity sex scandals, dramatic (or dramatized) "true crime" stories and similar trivia, it borders on the tricks of old-fashioned yellow journalism.

Corporate media is another recent pejorative, when applied to news conglomerates whose business interests critics see as counter to the public interest. For example, such media may avoid incisive reporting on influential corporations or limit public information about proposed government regulation of media industries. Collusion between political, business and media worlds sometimes brings allegations of illegal or unethical practices ranging from fraud to antitrust violations.

While bland infotainment and unethical corporate media practices may be considered "yellow" in the sense of "cowardly," the term yellow journalism traditionally refers to news organizations for whom some combination of sensationalism, profiteering, propaganda, journalistic bias or jingoism takes dominance over factual reporting and the profession's public trust. Yellow journalism is not as subtle a concept as media bias.

With some exceptions, most journalists have built their careers and reputation through consistent and thorough professionalism, gaining respect and prominence. Although presentation, appearance and personality is important for News anchors, a perceived lack of journalism skills (as with Peter Jennings during his first stint as an ABC News anchor in the 60s, or more recently in Connie Chung's stint behind the desk at CBS) will ultimately hinder a career.

A current perceived rift is therefore more akin to a segmentation according to definitions of "news." The public still attaches to "news" the connotations of "journalism." Because of these developments, the common definition of "news" no longer belongs in the domain of journalists, but to wider television and internet media outlets over a vast spectrum of target issues and audiences. The proliferation of web media has in a certain sense re-validated journalistic ethics: reports that conform best tend to be treated as more authoritative. "Pseudo-news" organizations draw general audiences, who tend to fall into market demographics that each favor particular blends of issues-based entertainment along with their "news."

Reputation and ethics do not necessarily coincide at all times. Well-established institutions such as the New York Times can be at fault. Many journalists find conflicts between their employment and their professionalism as journalists.


  1. Campbell, W. Joseph, The Spanish-American War: American Wars and the Media in Primary Documents, Introduction
  2. Swanberg, 1967, pp. 74-75
  3. Nasaw, David, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 100
  4. Emory, Edwin and Michael. The Press and America. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1984, 257
  5. Swanberg, 91
  6. Swanberg, 79
  7. Nasaw, 54-63
  8. Nasaw, 75-77
  9. Nasaw, 75
  10. Nasaw, 69-77
  11. Nasaw, 100
  12. Nasaw, 105
  13. Swanberg, 79
  14. Nasaw, 107
  15. Nasaw, 108
  16. quoted in Nasaw, 79
  17. Nasaw, 132
  18. Sloan & Startt, 191
  19. Nasaw, 133
  20. Nasaw, 138
  21. Sloan & Startt 191
  22. Nasaw, 156-158
  23. Emery, 295
  • George W. Auxier, "Middle Western Newspapers and the Spanish American War, 1895-1898," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 26 (March 1940):
  • Procter, Ben. William Randolph Hearst: The Early Years, 1863-1910 (1998)
  • Emory, Edwin and Michael. The Press and America. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1984
  • Joyce Milton, The Yellow Kids: Foreign correspondents in the heyday of yellow journalism." New York: Harper & Row, 1989).
  • Nasaw, David, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 2000
  • Morton M. Rosenberg and Thomas P. Ruff, Indiana and the Coming of the Spanish-American War, Ball State Monograph, No. 26, Publications in History, No. 4 (Muncie: Ball State University, 1976) who say Indiana papers were "more moderate, more cautious, less imperialistic and less jingoistic than their eastern counterparts."
  • W. David Sloan and James D. Startt, The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900 (2003)
  • Harold J. Sylvester, “The Kansas Press and the Coming of the Spanish-American War, ” The Historian, 31 (February 1969) finds no Yellow journalism influence on the newspapers in Kansas.
  • Swanberg, W.A. Pulitzer. New York; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.
  • Mark M. Welter, "The 1895-1898 Cuban Crisis in Minnesota Newspapers: Testing the 'Yellow Journalism' Theory," Journalism Quarterly, 47 (Winter 1970): 719—24.

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