Yellow Journalism: The Basics

A Style of Sensational Journalism Defined Newspapers of the Late 1890s

Photograph of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Yellow Journalism was a term used to describe a particular style of reckless and provocative newspaper reporting that became prominent in the late 1800s. A famous circulation war between two New York City newspapers prompted each paper to print increasingly sensationalistic headlines. And ultimately the newspapers may have influenced the United States government to enter the Spanish-American War.

The competition in the newspaper business was occurring at the same as the papers began to print some sections, particularly comic strips, with colored ink.

A type of quick-drying yellow ink was used to print the clothing of a comic character known as “The Kid.” And the color of the ink wound up giving a name to the raucous new style of newspapers.

The term stuck to such an extent that “yellow journalism” is still sometimes used to describe irresponsible reporting.

The Great New York City Newspaper War

The publisher Joseph Pulitzer turned his New York City newspaper, The World, into a popular publication in the 1880s by focusing on crime stories and other tales of vice. The front page of the paper often featured large headlines describing news events in provocative terms.

American journalism, for much of the 19th century, had been dominated by politics in the sense that newspapers were often aligned with a particular political faction. In the new style of journalism practiced by Pulitzer, the entertainment value of the news began to dominate.

Along with the sensational crime stories, The World also was known for a variety of innovative features, including a comics section that began in 1889.

The Sunday edition of The World passed 250,000 copies by the end of the 1880s.

In 1895 William Randolph Hearst bought the failing New York Journal at a bargain price and set his sights on displacing The World. He went about it in an obvious way: by hiring away the editors and writers employed by Pulitzer.

The editor who had made The World so popular, Morill Goddard, went to work for Hearst. And Pulitzer, to battle back, hired a brilliant young editor, Arthur Brisbane.

The two publishers and their scrappy editors battled for New York City’s reading public.

Did a Newspaper War Provoke a Real War?

The newspaper style produced by Hearst and Pulitzer tended to be fairly reckless, and there’s no question that their editors and writers were not above embellishing facts. But the style of journalism became a serious national issue when the United States was considering whether to intervene against Spanish forces in Cuba in the late 1890s.

Beginning in 1895, American newspapers inflamed the public by reporting on Spanish atrocities in Cuba. When the American battleship Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana on February 15, 1898, the sensationalist press cried out for vengeance.

Some historians have contended that Yellow Journalism prompted the American intervention in Cuba which followed in the summer of 1898. That assertion is impossible to prove. But there’s no doubt that the actions of President William McKinley were ultimately influenced by the enormous newspaper headlines and the provocative stories about the destruction of the Maine.

Legacy of Yellow Journalism

The publication of sensationalistic news had roots stretching back in the 1830s when the famous murder of Helen Jewett essentially created the template for what we think of as tabloid news coverage. But the Yellow Journalism of the 1890s took the approach of sensationalism to a new level with the use of large and often startling headlines.

Over time the public began to distrust newspapers which were obviously embellishing facts. And editors and publishers realized that building credibility with readers was a better long-term strategy.

But the impact of the newspaper competition of the 1890s still lingered to some extent, especially in the use of provocative headlines. The tabloid headlines we see today are in some ways rooted in the newsstand battles between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.