What is Yellow Journalism? - Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:00 Origin of Yellow Journalism
  • 1:32 The First 'Press-Driven War'
  • 2:24 Examples of Yellow Journalism
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Jill Story
Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

This lesson will explore the origin of the term yellow journalism and explain how this style of news reporting roused public support and influenced policy decisions.

Origin of Yellow Journalism

Have you ever stood in the check out line at the grocery store and read through the front-page headlines of the magazines on the shelf? Many of these eye-catching headlines seem unbelievable, but they probably peak your curiosity enough to make you want to look inside and read more. That is what the magazine publishers hope you'll do, at least. This type of reporting is known as yellow journalism.

Long before radio, television, and the Internet, newspapers served as a medium for communicating information to a wide audience. In the late 1800s, as immigrants poured into American cities, newspaper publishers saw the potential for greater profits through increased sales.

Yellow journalism is an exaggerated, exploitative, sensational style of newspaper reporting. It emerged at the end of the nineteenth century when rival newspaper publishers competed for sales in the coverage of events leading up to and during the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The growing turmoil in Cuba between the Spanish imperialists and Cuban revolutionaries gave William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Morning Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, an ongoing story to cover in their newspapers. To keep Americans entertained and coming back for new developments, these yellow journalists would often exaggerate events, sometimes fabricating the truth and would present information in a way that was intended to excite the public and provoke interest, even if the story's details were not true.

The First 'Press-Driven War'

The Spanish-American War is often cited as the first 'press-driven war.' It began when America decided to aid Cuban rebels in their fight against Spanish rule. When the rebels took up arms against Spain for a second time in 1895, American newspaper publishers joined the fight. Reporting on the events in Cuba, Hearst and Pulitzer realized that a war would be great for business. People would rely on the newspapers for the latest information about the insurrection and this would help sell newspapers.

Between 1895 and 1898, Hearst and Pulitzer sent reporters to Cuba to cover the rebellion. These reporters would often fabricate stories to appease the newspaper publishers. When one artist, Frederic Remington, cabled his boss that all was quiet and there was nothing to report, Hearst famously wired back, 'You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war.'

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompt for What is Yellow Journalism?:

You are an assistant for newspaper owner, Joseph Pulitzer. Your job is to review incoming stories from reporters in Cuba before forwarding them to the editor for publication. You've noticed that lately the stories have been short and unexciting. You know Pulitzer will not like them. Write a memo to your reporters giving them instructions for future stories. Be sure to remind them why such stories are important for the newspaper and their jobs.

Group Debate on Yellow Journalism:

Divide your class into two groups, one that supports yellow journalism and another that opposes it. Before beginning the debate, spend some time discussing with your group members why you support or oppose yellow journalism. Each group should consider: Should yellow journalism be legal? Does the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech and the press include sensational, even false stories meant to increase profits? Do newspaper editors and journalists have a duty to publish accurate stories? What responsibility lies with the general public and consumers of these publications?

Additional Questions to Consider:

Besides provoking a conflict with another nation, as the original yellow journalism of the late-19th century did, what other consequences may yellow journalism have had in the past? What about in the present?

Why did reporters in Cuba feel pressured to fabricate stories about the Spanish American War?

If you can't believe everything that you read, what are some strategies to parse fact from fiction when researching a topic?

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