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What is Yellow Journalism?

Margo Upson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Yellow journalism is exaggerated or biased media reporting that is disguised as fact. Originating out of an intense competition between rival newspapers in the late 1800s, it involves taking a factual story and presenting it in a sensational or distorted way. It may be used to invoke fear, loathing, uncertainty or even sympathy in readers, but often, the bottom line is an attempt to boost sales or viewership and gain more market share. Although people generally regard this type of reporting as unprofessional and a violation of journalistic ethics, it appears frequently today, with perhaps the best example being tabloids.

General Characteristics

Although the tactics that people in the media use to capture a reader or viewer's attention can vary a bit from location to location, typically, yellow media features very bold, large pictures and headlines, and layouts are designed to immediately grab the reader's interest. In the case of radio, Internet and television, journalists sometimes use flashing banners and sound alerts, as well. The company that is providing the news often openly promotes itself and tries to make itself look more credible by presenting "experts" who aren't truly qualified to provide information. Claims usually are exaggerated and melodramatic, and there generally are few to no citations.


Experts generally attribute the beginning of yellow journalism to William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The industrial revolution brought about a printing press that could create thousands of copies of a newspaper overnight. In 1895, Pulitzer's paper, New York World, was the top paper in New York City and the surrounding area. When Hearst bought the New York Journal, he quickly became Pulitzer's main competition.

The term yellow journalism came from a fight between the two journalists over cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault, who created a comic strip called "Hogan's Alley." It featured the Yellow Kid, a main character who was so called because he wore a big, yellow nightshirt. Hearst lured Outcault away from Pulitzer to create the comic strip in his paper, and Pulitzer then hired a second cartoonist to duplicate Outcault's work.

The competition between Hearst and Pulitzer quickly spiraled out of control, and soon, they were in a war over who could sell the most copies. To achieve this goal, they started using sensationalism, altering or completely making up the facts, and writing outrageous or emotional headlines to attract sales. This bid for market share came to a head during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Pulitzer and Hearst both had a huge role in how the American public viewed Cuba in its bid for independence from Spain. Through their papers, both journalists emphasized the wrong-doings of the Spanish army, breezing over any faults of the Cuban troops. They also called for United States intervention, leading to the country's involvement in the war. The conflict sometimes is referred to as the "media war" because of how strongly the publications altered public opinion.

Yellow journalism has been a feature of nearly every war in the 20th century, usually portraying the opposing side as evil, subhuman or similarly worth attacking. The media has been used not only for political gains, but to win social benefits, as well. Fear mongering and exaggeration of the facts is still a popular way to alter what people individually and collectively think.

Modern Yellow Journalism

Although this type of journalism is much less common now than it was in the early 1900s, it is still around. Some newspapers, magazines, Internet sites and even television news channels may present information with a spin on the facts to support their own views or to increase the number of readers or viewers. Shocking headlines still typically sell more papers than regular ones do.

Yellow journalism has stayed alive in media partly because, like Pulitzer and Hearst's papers, contemporary companies need to have good market share to stay profitable. A large number of free information sources, many of which are available online around the clock, are available that provide added competition. The response has been to be generally more accepting of drama, opinion and conflict pieces.

Concerns and Debate

Many professionals who work in media are concerned about yellow journalism from an ethical standpoint. They typically believe that the public always deserves the truth, and that this kind of reporting makes it hard to get it. A major worry is that it can pervert justice, leading people to opinions, decisions and actions that they wouldn't have or do if the journalist remained objective.

Despite this, some say that big headlines and dramatic content can draw attention to news elements that otherwise would not get much notice, which can be beneficial. The typical concentration on the underdog in the stories might help to correct power imbalances, and when successful, the reporting can keep a media company financially afloat. Supporters also assert that the approach journalists usually take is better at keeping audiences engaged.

Legal Issues

Legal treatment of yellow journalism varies depending on location. In the United States, for example, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech and, therefore, essentially allows the media to have a very loose reign on their reporting. Even so, America does have laws related to liable and slander, which basically say that someone cannot damage a person or company's reputation by printing or saying something that isn't true. This helps keep sensationalist reporting contained a bit, but defamation lawsuits are notoriously hard to win. Many areas that are politically unstable have passed or are trying to pass regulations that would limit what and how journalists report.

How Readers Can Deal with Questionable Reporting

Checking facts and using several sources are both ways to determine whether something is really true or merely a product of yellow journalism. It also often helps for readers to analyze the news source and consider the reason for the particular spin on a story. Paying more attention to language — in particular, looking for adjectives that have specific connotations — is another strategy that often reveals bias. People who find that a news source isn't following good ethical standards can contact the media company with complaints or leave comments on online pieces that call out the sensationalism, lack of truth or citations, and similar problems.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Margo Upson
By Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education, Margo Upson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her role as a Language & Humanities writer. Her wide-ranging interests and skill at diving into new topics make her articles informative, engaging, and valuable to readers seeking to expand their knowledge.
Discussion Comments
By anon955432 — On Jun 07, 2014

How is yellow journalism important?

By anon121650 — On Oct 25, 2010

I am a victim of political yellow journalism that destroyed my small business and cost me all of my friends (not to mention the election as well).

By spreadsheet — On Oct 20, 2010

While the lies and the absolute deceit of yellow journalism is horrible and should never have happened I do have to wonder what affect yellow journalism hat on actually boosting readers desire for printed materials and that eventually led to the digitalization and multimedia materials that we now have available to us for entertainment and news.

Without this and sensationalism of yellow journalism when people have never really been captivated by born newspapers? I wonder about the fact that people might've been more interested in books and other fairy tales in yellow journalism that never occurred. To this day we have examples of how readers are shocked and sensationalized by media companies especially still in the newspaper industry.

The publishing of an outrageous picture on the front page of the newspaper is a prime example of how yellow journalism has now come to more of a yellow tinged journalism.

By youbiKan — On Oct 20, 2010

While previous commenters have been correct about yellow journalism actually creating prohibition and the horrible policies that were brought about with it, there are many other adverse effects that have arisen from yellow journalism. The degradation to the quality of journalism that we have in our nation and the bad reputation that newspapers can carry with them is partly to blame because of yellow journalism from previous generations.

This heavyweight of having to prove consistency and accuracy in reporting coming out of media publications is very heavy. If your readers and consumers of your news do not trust your information and you lost the initial battle of competency and confidence. Yellow journalism is to blame for this automatic assumption that newspapers are wrong and this gross generalization that now spreads over the media industry.

By Burlap — On Oct 20, 2010

@GraniteChief Is absolutely correct when he talks about starting of the drug prohibition because of yellow journalism and the Hearst papers of the early 20th century. If you ever heard of reefer madness before it was a movie that was created to scare people away from the use of cannabis.

This horribly misleading film often lead to other stories that were published in newspapers around the nation that made people think that marijuana influence people to rape white women and steel from farmers.

Because of this, people decided quickly to outlaw marijuana on a variety of government levels from state, to County, and all the way up to the federal level. This meant a whole new era of marijuana prohibition that injured with the marijuana stamp act of 1937. Yellow journalism was to blame for this entire process and the misinformation spread because of bad reporting.

By GraniteChief — On Oct 20, 2010

The concept of what yellow journalism is can be very difficult to understand the author of this article does a very good job at helping to explain it. The problem with yellow journalism is the absolute misinformation and it spreads to the public.

This spreading of ignorance and inability to accept what the true news is will greatly harm to society and our society is a prime example of how this is happened. The yellow journalism that happened in the Hearst papers of the early 20th century is a prime example of how yellow journalism not only effected our politics and our drug policies but also the people who ended up in jail had their lives destroyed because of the misinformation spread.

One of the reasons that prohibition started as well as drug prohibition started is because of yellow journalism. While we have already removed regular prohibition from our policies drug prohibition is still an issue and we have to understand what the roots of drug prohibition work and why the logic is flawed that is behind them.

By anon119463 — On Oct 18, 2010

great article. Thank you. It was of help to me.

Margo Upson
Margo Upson
With a vast academic background that has ranged from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education,...
Learn more
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