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.

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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.’

Examples of Yellow Journalism

In 1898, fearing that the war in Cuba would hurt American business investments on the island, U.S. President William McKinley sent the U.S.S. Maine to patrol Havana Harbor. While stationed in the harbor, the ship exploded. Yellow journalists wasted no time in blaming Spain for the explosion, even without evidence to support this theory.

The newspapers’ reporting successfully roused American support for the Cuban rebels and ultimately resulted in a declaration of war against Spain. Yellow journalism is still alive and well. These days you can find this type of sensational reporting in tabloid magazines, and some entertainment-based television, and online news outlets. Each person is responsible for doing their own research to separate fact from fiction. You can’t believe everything you read.

Lesson Summary

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 fabricate the truth and present information in a way that was intended to excite the public and provoke interest, even if the story’s details were not true. This was often cited as being the first ‘press-driven war.’

This sensational type of reporting helped to sway public opinion to favor a war against Spain. Today, this exaggerated style of reporting is most common in tabloid magazines and entertainment television programming.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson on mass media should result in you being able to:

  • Explain what yellow journalism is
  • Describe the emergence of yellow journalism
  • Recall how the Spanish-American War was the first press-driven war
  • Cite examples of yellow journalism