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9. Yellow Journalism

9. Yellow Journalism

“W. R. Hearst, New York Journal, N.Y.: ‘Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return. ‘Remington.’

Remington, Havana: ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war. ‘W. R. Hearst.’”

This is one of the most famous exchanges in newspaper history, purportedly between photographer Fredrick Remington and newspaper baron William Randolf Hearst. Supposedly it took place in 1897 and it’s cited as one of the major reasons that the U.S. entered the war in Spain in 1898.

There is a good chance that this exchange never really happened.

Even so this is a great illustration of Mr. Hearst’s Yellow Journalism.

In 1941, historian Frank Luther Mott defined Yellow Journalism using the following characteristics,

1. scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
2. lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
3. use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
4. emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips (which is now normal in the U.S.)
5. dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.

It was born of fierce battles for circulation between William Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Pulitzer wanted his paper to be entertaining, so he published games, contests and pictures along with an assortment of headlines like these:

  • “Screaming for Mercy”
  • “How Babies Are Baked”
  • “Burning Babies Fall From The Roof”

The last two, by the way, came from the 1883 heat wave.

Not to be outdone, Hearst devoted nearly a quarter of his paper to crime stories with adultery and “nudity” thrown in to boot. All of these stories ran with outlandish headlines and a heavy emphasis on pathos.

As I mentioned earlier, Hearst and Pulitzer are also cited as having a substantial role in fanning the flames of the Spanish-American War. They did this through the same sensationalist headlines that drove most of the rest of their journalism and downright lying.

While many papers (and later tabloids) would continue to seek out the most extraordinary “news” pieces they could find, for Hearst, the straw that broke the camels back came in 1901 with the assassination of McKinley which he was widely blamed for – his newspaper having run several articles suggesting it. For Pulitzer, after the war, he couldn’t bring himself to continue the circulation battle and spent the rest of his life fighting to restore his paper’s good name.

While I can’t think of the last war started by news bloggers, there are some parallels here. As more and more blogs enter the public consciousness, each of them is fighting hard for readership against an increasingly stratified eco-system. While some hold very high ethical standards, many critics believe that bloggers often fall into the trap of using rumor, sensationalist headlines and weakly sourced information to bolster their circulation, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

Take a look at this video from WatchMojo, talking to the Hearst biographer Kenneth Whyte and decide.

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