Yellow Journalism – A War of Words

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Photo by The Public Domain Reveiw

The year was 1895, and a war was just starting. Ammunition and soldiers rolled out, hurled into the line of fire and the American public. This was a different type of battle however, where headlines took the place of bombs, and reporters were the fighters on the front lines.

It started with Joseph Pulitzer. He first entered the journalism scene working at a German language daily and became a publisher in 1878, developing a flashy style of writing. In a city that consisted mostly of immigrants that lived in poor tenant buildings, he appealed to the masses with the perspective of the underdog as one of the main focuses of the news. It was considered relatable and gained attention and popularity with the public.

William Hearst, who had wanted to be a writer at a young age, became apprenticed with Pulitzer before becoming a publisher in 1887. Having seen how Pulitzer wrote and the profits he was earning, Hearst modeled his paper after his former mentor’s. He even went on to hire people from Pulitzer’s newspapers, The New York World. His journal, The New York Journal, was officially the enemy. So went on the war of words. The two companies posted about politics, business, and dramatized events, sensationalizing the news.

The term yellow journalism came from a series of political cartoons. The first color that could be printed in the newspaper was yellow. So, The New York World illustrator, R.F. Outcault created “Hogan’s Alley” centered around a character called “the yellow kid”. The New York Journal, not to be outdone, hired the same artist to do political cartoons for his company. Pulitzer simply hired another cartoonist and continued the series. The cartoons continued until 1898, and became a sort of trademark for this style of writing, creating the phrase yellow journalism.

The style of writing became even more prominent when the Cubans rebelled from the Spanish. Both newspapers wanted the U.S to join the war, and it was the main source of headlines during the duration of the conflict. The two companies did ultimately draw attention to the uprising, catching the attention of the public. A memorable occasion of this is February 17, 1898, when the warship Maine sank of unknown causes. In The New York Journal, a $50,000 award was issued for any known information, and both newspapers claimed that the Spanish were suspected, even though there was no evidence to support this. The coverage and reward surrounding the event captured a lot of attention and affected the opinions of the public. Eventually, the U.S did step into the war, but after it had concluded the production of yellow journalism wasn’t as popular.

Keith Patterson, Associate Director and TPS Western Region, has talked about the subject during events like Denver Pop Culture Con and knows about the subject. “It’s somewhat of a cautionary tale as to why we need to be careful with our writing.” He informs us, “Don’t just use one source, even if it looks good.” Yellow Journalism is definitely an example of how the news can be manipulative, and how it’s important to check information sources.