W. Joseph Campbell

More than merely sensational

In 1897, Media myths, Yellow Journalism on February 1, 2010 at 8:36 am

Yellow journalism” lives on in as ready shorthand for sensationalism, for reckless and lurid treatment of the news.

“Yellow journalism” is a delicious and versatile sneer, a term that first appeared in print in late January 1897 and routinely invoked in the decades since to describe egregious journalistic misconduct of almost any kind.

But such casual, shorthand characterizations are not very accurate.

Young W.R. Hearst

They fail to capture or reflect the complexity and vigor of yellow journalism, the leading practitioners of which were the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and, to a lesser extent, those of Joseph Pulitzer.

Yellow journalism was flamboyant and aggressive, to be sure. Especially so was Hearst’s New York Journal. But to equate “yellow journalism” simply to sensationalism is to misunderstand what a dynamic phenomenon it was.

As I wrote my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, “in its most developed and intense form, yellow journalism was characterized by” these features:

  • 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 eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As defined above and as practiced more than a century ago, yellow journalism, I wrote in the book, “certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired”—complaints of the sort often raised about contemporary American newspapers.

Moreover, yellow journalism “was a product of a lusty, fiercely competitive, and intolerant time, when newspapers routinely traded brickbats and insults,” I wrote.

“The latter practice was remarkably well-developed at the end of the nineteenth century. The Journal and [Pulitzer’s] World, for example, were ever eager to impugn, denounce, and sneer at each other; so, too, were conservative newspapers.”

More generally, “yellow journalism reflected the brashness and the hurried pace of urban America at the turn of the twentieth century,” I wrote.

“It was a lively, provocative, swaggering style of journalism well suited to an innovative and expansive time—a period when the United States first projected its military power beyond the Western Hemisphere in a sustained manner. The recognition was widespread at the end of the nineteenth century that the country was on the cusp of rapid, perhaps even disruptive transformation.”

Yellow journalism, moreover, “was a genre keen to adapt and eager to experiment.” It took risks; it shook up and even shocked the field.

Were that mainstream news media of the 21st century so inclined.


  1. […] the war” is so tenacious because it offers a tidy summary of the news media at their worst. And it’s a pithy quotation, easily digested and readily […]

  2. […] these newspapers, the leading exemplars of yellow journalism, hardly set an agenda for the American press in the aftermath of the Maine’s […]

  3. […] that’s far from what “yellow journalism” was. Hearst caricature, […]

  4. […] “furnish the war” anecdote in an admiring way, saying it demonstrated how Hearst’s “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating events. But over the years, the vow […]

  5. […] with warfare only partly explains the tenacity and international appeal of the myth that yellow journalism fomented the Spanish-American […]

  6. […] term these days is sometimes invoked as an off-hand description for sensational treatment of the news. Or, more broadly, it’s used to describe egregious journalistic misconduct of […]

  7. […] But yellow journalism of the late 19th century was much more than merely sensational. […]

  8. […] came when he invoked William Randolph Hearst, the much-misunderstood practitioner of activist yellow journalism who came to prominence in the 1890s. Obama […]

  9. […] For the Journal–which never was shy about self-promotion–the Cisneros jailbreak and rescue were “epochal,” the apogee of its brand of activist-oriented yellow journalism. […]

  10. […] Hearst by then was running the provocative and activist-oriented New York Journal — the newspaper that helped give rise in 1897 to the sneer, “yellow journalism.” […]

  11. […] The year then closing had been a stunning one for Hearst and his flagship newspaper, the New York Journal. […]

  12. […] For starters, the “Best of the Web” item didn’t explain what it meant by “yellow journalism.” […]

  13. […] and flabby that it has become synonymous with journalistic sins of all kinds — exaggeration, sensationalism, hype, plagiarism, what have […]

  14. […] and the governorship of New York, ambitions that were boosted by, but not contingent upon, his activist-oriented […]

  15. […] tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s raunchy, scandal-ridden News of the World, breaks a link to the yellow journalism that flared in urban America at the end of the 19th century. Jail-breaking […]

  16. […] The yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer was much more than merely sensational. […]

  17. […] But in fact they “published a fair amount of sober financial, political, and diplomatic information,” Stevens wrote. They were much more than merely sensational. […]

  18. […] since then, “yellow journalism” has turned into a derisive if vague shorthand for denouncing sensationalism and journalistic misconduct of all […]

  19. […] praise him. Creelman wrote in his memoir that the anecdote demonstrated how Hearst’s activist “yellow journalism” had an eye toward the future and was good at anticipating […]

  20. […] inaccurate account of the conflict’s origins — is that it was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York […]

  21. […] media myth is hoarier than the notion that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was fomented by the “yellow press” of William Randolph Hearst, then the publisher of the New York Journal, the New York Evening […]

  22. […] show’s resident history authority, Christopher Woolf, claimed that sensational reporting in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal about the destruction of the USS Maine in […]

  23. […] Shorthand for sensationalism “yellow journalism” was not. […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: