A style of sensationalist newspaper writing that emerged in the late nineteenth century, “yellow journalism” has been accused, at best, of conspiracy-minded scaremongering and, at worst, of actively fabricating stories and conspiring behind the scenes to bring about historical events. Known by its proponents as “the journalism that acts” (Milton, xiii), it is a style of biased reporting designed to inspire specific opinions of its readership.
This style makes use of multicolumn headlines, a wide variety of sensational subject matter, frequent, and some say excessive, use of illustrations of all sorts, intriguing and novel layouts, the use of anonymous sources, and a focus on self-promotion.
The term comes from the newspaper publicity wars of the late 1800s, when publisher William Randolph Hearst hired artist R. F. Outcault away from the New York World to work for his newspaper, the New York Journal.
Hearst was interested in presenting one of Outcault’s newest creations, a comic strip named Hogan’s Alley. The strip featured what was to be Outcault’s most famous creation, a small Chinese boy who wore a giant shirt that reached from his neck to his toes.
When color became available, this boy’s shirt was colored yellow, and the strip became colloquially known as “The Yellow Kid.” Following a fight over the character and the profits his immense readership would bring, eventually both papers won the right to print comics featuring him.
The use of the color yellow, a novelty at the time, came to symbolize a new movement in journalism, namely a focus upon style and bold effects that often played fast and loose with the truth to attract readers.
The most famous example of yellow journalism is an alleged cable sent by Hearst. Reporter Richard Harding Davis and artist Frederic Remington were sent by Hearst to Cuba to report on conditions there in the winter of 1896–1897.
The expected revolution against the ruling colonial government of Spain was not visible in Havana, and Remington is said to have told Hearst, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.”
In reply, Hearst is said to have ordered, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” Although Hearst denied the story, and no evidence of the telegrams has ever been found, the re-creation of the incident within Orson Welles’s epic Citizen Kane has only lent credence to the oft-told tale.
It is entirely possible, however, that the story that best defined the term “yellow journalism” is also the finest example of the form, as James Creelman, who broke the story, did little to offer any evidence or proof of his claims concerning Hearst, and in decrying the lack of responsible reporting of the Spanish-American War may have used the very techniques he was attempting to describe to make his point.
It is important to note, however, that Creelman was known to exaggerate in his stories, and had in fact previously been investigated by the U.S. minister to Japan, Edwin Dun, for a report to the U.S. State Department concerning his work. Conspiracies were often a feature within his prose, involving individuals at the highest level of the U.S. government.
Hearst, on the other hand, only argued against the rumor on occasion, and may have preferred the circulation of the telegram story, which he could offer arguments against, as a defense against inquiry into his involvement in events leading up to the bombing of the USS Maine.
If Hearst had truly been involved in either of these attacks, it would be in his best interest to encourage investigation into events, such as the purported telegraphic exchange, that he could more easily deny.
Today the term “yellow journalism” is normally used to refer to a lack of ethical behavior on the part of journalists and commentators, whether it is by manufacturing sources and stories, or by tricking their sources into revealing far more of a story than they intended to in the first place.