W. Joseph Campbell

Getting it right about ‘yellow journalism’

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on August 19, 2010 at 11:16 am

“Yellow journalism” is an evocative sneer that has morphed over the decades.

Hearst's New York Evening Journal, April 1898

The term these days is sometimes invoked as an off-hand description for sensational treatment of the news. Or, more broadly, it’s used to describe egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind.

Or, as AlterNet blog noted in a post yesterday, “sometimes, yellow journalism is seen as synonymous with [William Randolph] Hearst, himself.”

But that’s really an imprecise characterization of a robust genre practiced by Hearst and others in the late 19th century.

As I wrote in my 2001  book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, yellow journalism was defined by these features and characteristics:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention frequently to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

Given those defining features, I wrote in Yellow Journalism that the genre “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.”

Moreover, yellow journalism of a century or more ago was often criticized–but its salient features, including its bold typography, were often emulated. As such, it exerted a powerful influence in American journalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So it was much more than merely sensational.

But largely due to its association with Hearst–a toxic personality who ran the New York Journal and later turned the newspaper into a platform for a succession of failed campaigns for high public office–“yellow journalism” has mutated into the caricature that’s commonplace today.

The AlterNet post, which assails Rupert Murdoch and his recent $1 million donation to the Republicans, also says “yellow journalism” was “originally coined to describe the journalistic practices of Joseph Pulitzer….”

Not so.

As I discuss in Yellow Journalism, the epithet was devised in early 1897 to impugn the journalism of both Pulitzer and Hearst.

Yellow journalism” first appeared in print in the New York Press, which was edited by the austere Ervin Wardman, who once was described as revealing his “Calvinistic ancestry in every line of his face.”

The term appeared in Wardman’s newspaper on January 31, 1897, and quickly caught on, as a way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of Hearst’s Journal and of Pulitzer‘s New York World.  By the end of March 1897, references to “yellow journalism” had appeared in newspapers in Providence, Richmond, and San Francisco.

A sneer thus had been born.

Precisely how Wardman and the Press landed on “yellow journalism” is not clear, however.

As I note in Yellow Journalism, the newspaper’s own brief discussion of the term’s origins was vague and unrevealing: “We called them Yellow because they are Yellow,” it said in 1898 about the Journal and the World.

In the 1890s, the color yellow sometimes was associated with depraved literature, which may have been an inspiration to the Harvard-educated Wardman, who plainly despised Hearst and Pulitzer, and editorially supported an ill-fated boycott of their newspapers in New York City in 1897.


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