When the term “Yellow Journalism” was coined in the late 1890s, it was used to describe the signature styles and methods used by New York City newspaper giants Joseph Pulitzer (The New York Word) and William Randolph Hearst (The New York Journal). Huge, sprawling headlines covered each of their newspapers with alarming exclamations of war, crises and money rewards. Powerful words such as “death,” “slaughter,” and “glory” were used on the front page whenever possible in order to generate public interest and curiosity. Along with bold headlines, the yellow journalism of the late 1800s and early 1900s consisted of twisted facts, fake interviews, sensationalism and colorful comics. Today, the term retains most of its old meaning, but it has stretched to describe any journalism that treats news “in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.”
Today, it can be argued that an entire genre is dedicated to yellow journalism. They surround grocery store conveyor belts, catching people’s eyes with their bright colors and scandalous claims. Of course, these are tabloids. One can see similarities just by looking at the two’s bold headlines and generous use of exclamation points.
In 2009, The Guardian reported an instance where a UK-based documentary team made up false stories about celebrities to see if tabloid journalists would fact-check such claims. The far-fetched stories included Amy Winehouse’s hair catching fire and a member of the pop group Girls Aloud announcing her enthusiasm for quantum physics. Avril Lavigne and Russell Brand were also victims of this project. The documentary’s director, Chris Atkins noted how all that was needed to be counted as a “credible” source was a name and a telephone number. He was offered up to £600 for the fake stories, which equates to about $943.
Here is a video of the documentary’s director, Chris Atkins, explaining the hoax.
“I wanted to show that celebrity journalism is nonsense and this has infected all parts of journalism. I thought that quite a fun way to illustrate this was to see if we could invent some stories ‑ utterly fabricated stories ‑ and try to sell them to the newspapers,” Atkins said.
The false stories in this hoax are just a small sample of the many falsities printed in tabloids. Just googling “tabloid lies” is enough to see just how common it is. For example, Jennifer Anniston dismissed reports of how “miserable” she is and In Touch Weekly falsely reported that Kim Kardashian couldn’t fit in her wedding dress and used a fake picture on the cover.
Although the content printed under Hearst and Pulitzer differ greatly compared to tabloids today, it’s easy for one to notice the similarities in style and motive. Both experience(d) a highly competitive market and want to gain as much readership as possible, and both use(d) exaggeration, bold claims, and lies to win.
Yellow Journalism in Other Parts of Media
Whether intentional or not, unethical and unprofessional journalism is continually created. One of the most recent cases of exaggeration and sensationalism in the media is the coverage of Ebola. Though the deadliness of the virus is undeniable, the amount of panic over it in the United States is disproportional.
Youma Seck, social economist, wrote an open letter October 30 to Western media for “inciting panic for the sake of ratings” where she noted that the media referring to Ebola-infected countries as “West Africa” gives readers a false idea of how widespread the virus actually is. “[West Africa] is a geographical area composed of 15 countries. Of those countries, three are the most affected by the virus (Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone), and Mali has only reported one case,” she said.
Seck also points out how countries in Africa that have never had a case of ebola are paying an economic price from all of the travel cancelations due to their tourism sectors taking a big hit. “As revenues from tourism depreciate, a domino effect is occurring, impacting other sectors such as the labour market, food prices, and general cost of living.”
“Furthermore, attention is being driven away from other important issues that are still in occurrence in Sub-Saharan Africa such as the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, the continuing civil war in the Central African Republic, and the political uprising led by the civil society in Burkina Faso— that is just to name a few. Yes, Ebola is the hot topic of the last few weeks, but these and other news from the continent should not take a backseat.”
The Michael Brown case and the October 24 school shooting are recent incidents involving young men and gun violence. While many news sites were quick to point out Brown’s faults, news sites were also quick to point out the good qualities in Jaylen Fryberg, the school shooter who killed four classmates.
A Huffington Post article written by Nick Wang addresses the differences in racial media coverage, highlighting headline treatments between black victims and white suspects.
“This is by no means standard media protocol, but it happens frequently, deliberately or not. News reports often headline claims from police or other officials that appear unsympathetic or dismissive of black victims. Other times, the headlines seem to suggest that black victims are to blame for their own deaths, engaging in what critics sometimes allege is a form of character assassination. When contrasted with media portrayal of white suspects and accused murderers, the differences are more striking. News outlets often choose to run headlines that exhibit an air of disbelief at an alleged white killer’s supposed actions. Sometimes, they appear to go out of their way to boost the suspect’s character, carrying quotes from relatives or acquaintances that often paint even alleged murderers in a positive light.”
While tabloids are obvious examples yellow journalism, topics such as ebola and the media’s coverage of race and crime require deeper analyzations in order to realize the sensational, biased, and “yellow” undertones written into stories today.