Yellow journalism usually refers to sensationalistic or biased stories that newspapers present as objective truth; established, late nineteenth-century journalists coined the term to belittle the unconventional techniques of their rivals. Although Eric Burns (2006) demonstrated that the press in early America could be quite raucous, yellow journalism is generally perceived to be a late 1800s phenomenon full of lore and spin, fact and fiction, tall tales, and large personalities.

William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, and his arch rival, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, are credited with the creation of yellow journalism. Such journalism had the following characteristics: the use of multicolumn headlines, oversized pictures, and dominant graphics; front-page stories that varied from sensationalist to salacious in the same issue; one-upmanship, or the scooping of stories, only later to be embarrassed into retractions (usually by a competing publication); jingoism, or the inflaming of national sentiments through slanted news stories, often related to Civil War; extensive use of anony- mous sources by overzealous reporters especially in investigative stories on “big-business,” famous people, or political figures; self-promotion within the news medium; and pandering to the so-called hoi polloi, especially by using the newspaper layout to cater to immigrants for whom English was not their first language.

The conservative press thought these characteristics amounted to misconduct in the gathering of news and launched a boycott of both newspapers. The boycott was successful in excluding the two newspapers from the stands in the New York Public Library, social clubs, and reading rooms, but it only served to increase readership among average citizens who rarely frequented such establishments. Overall, the boycott backfired. Circulation for both newspapers increased, and Hearst purchased other newspapers and insisted on the use of the same techniques in other cities. The conservative press was itself not above printing the occasional fantastical story. Moreover, within ten years, almost every newspaper in the country began using large headlines for election day editions or illustrations and pictures to contextualize a crisis or celebration. Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s newspapers eventually declined in circulation, but not before others had copied their methods. Lore has suggested that the use of a comic strip illustrated by the World’s Richard Felton Outcault entitled “The Yellow Kid” (later poached by the Journal) and used to poke fun at industry, political, and society figures, was the source of the phrase “yellow journalism.” Other sources point to a series of critical editorials by Ervin Wardman of the New York Press as coining the phrase after first attempting to stigmatize the practices as “new” and then “nude” journalism—“yellow” had the more sinister, negative connotation Wardman sought. Other editors began to use the term in their news- papers in New York, and it eventually spread to Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities by early 1897.

Although modern journalistic standards are arguably as high as they have ever been, some Supreme Court decisions have allowed for criticism, especially of public figures. In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the Supreme Court set a strong presumption against prior restraint of publication, and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) further set a high bar for public figures who thought that articles printed about them were libelous. McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995) also ruled that individuals can publish anonymous criticisms of political issues, and newspapers’ use of anonymous sources is largely governed by a code of journalistic ethics.

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