Yellow journalism usually refers to sensationalistic or biased stories that newspapers present as objective truth.

Established late 19th-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.

Yellow journalism maked by sensationalist stories, self-promotion

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:

Conservative press organizes boycott against Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers

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.

Illustration published in the New York Evening Post shows William Randolph Hearst as a jester tossing newspapers to a crowd of eager readers. It includes a note in the bottom left from the New York mayor which says, " "The time is at hand when these journalistic scoundrels have got to stop or get out, and I am ready now to do my share to that end. They are absolutely without souls. If decent people would refuse to look at such newspapers the whole thing would right itself at once. The journalism of New York City has been dragged to the lowest depths of degradation. The grossest railleries and libels, instead of honest statements and fair discussion, have gone unchecked." (public domain)


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.

The term 'yellow journalism' sourced to comic strip and editorials

The Yellow Kid comic stripped as poached by the Journal. (public domain)

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 newspapers in New York, and it eventually spread to Chicago, San Francisco, and other cities by early 1897.

Supreme Court has set a high bar for public figures who think they've been libeled by press

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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