W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘new yellow journalism’? Hardly

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 18, 2009 at 3:52 pm

The blog Secondhand Smoke yesterday likened coverage of the global warming debate to “a new yellow journalism,” arguing:

“When journalists so emotionally choose sides, they cease to be journalists.”

The blog author may be right about U.S. media coverage of the global warming phenomenon. It’s hardly been searching, or challenging, in any sustained way.

But he’s quite incorrect in saying the coverage represents “a new yellow journalism” (which he vaguely defines as “using all the tricks of the trade to panic the world into granting tremendous power to an unelected and unaccountable global warming scientocracy, that will ‘save the planet’ via anti human and economy  killing policies”).

Yellow journalism, he further writes, “helped push the USA into war back in the 1890s.”

Well, that’s a media myth. A delicious and enduring one, too.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies:

William Randolph Hearst in 1896

“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force—it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

I also wrote that claims that the yellow press fomented the war “are exceedingly media-centric, often rest on the selective use of evidence, and tend to ignore more relevant and immediate factors that give rise to armed conflict.

“In the case of the Spanish-American War, the policy objectives between the United States and Spain ultimately proved irreconcilable. Months of intricate diplomatic efforts ultimately failed to resolve what had become an intolerable state of affairs in Cuba, dramatized by the destruction of the Maine in [February 1898] in a harbor under Spanish control and supervision. To indict the yellow press for causing the Spanish-American War is to misread the evidence and to ignore the intricacies of the diplomatic quandary that culminated in the spring of 1898 in an impasse that led to war.”

Yellow journalism has been equated (as Secondhand Smoke suggests) to lurid and sensational treatment of the news. It’s often the term of choice for egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind. And sometimes, yellow journalism is seen as synonymous with Hearst, himself.

None of those shorthand characterizations is adequate, revealing, or very accurate. None of them captures the genre’s complexity and vigor.

As practiced in the late 19th century, yellow journalism was defined by these features and charactersitics:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention frequently to the newspaper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As so defined, yellow journalism certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired—complaints of the sort that are frequently raised about U.S. newspapers of the early twenty-first century.

Jack Shafer, the inestimable media critic at slate.com, put it well in a column early this year:

“I wish our better newspapers availed themselves of some of the techniques of yellow journalism and a little less of the solemnity we associate with the Committee of Concerned Journalists.” Well said.


  1. […] In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on August 19, 2010 at 11:16 am “Yellow journalism” is an evocative sneer that has morphed over the decades. Hearst's New York Evening Journal, […]

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