Colours Perspective

Where did the term yellow journalism come from?

Cropped Image of the "The Yellow Press", by L. M. Glackens

Yellow journalism is associated with newspapers that present little to no legitimate well-researched, well-sourced news stories in exchange for eye-grabbing headlines and money. In the Gilded age, tabloid papers started to sell mostly illustrated captions on the page than text to read. Tabloid newspapers were 11×17 inch newspapers that were sold to a mostly illiterate audience. The size of the paper is associated with the type of news on the sheet. Sensationalized journalism often means sell papers at any cost. And tabloid journalism replaces terms like yellow journalism and scandal sheets to modern audiences.

Yellow journalism was a term used since the 1890s when journalists started to exaggerate the news for quickly print newspapers for a quick profit. This poor standard of quality started between two newspaper magnates of the time, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Hearst owned New York Journal and The San Francisco Examiner. And Joesph Pultizer owned New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The phrase came out after an argument about the quality of the other newspaper after hiring the popular cartoonist Richard F. Outcault.

“The Yellow Kid” with “Buster Brown” (in pink) in a comic by Richard F. Outcault.
Illustration of “The Yellow Kid” aka Mickey Dugan by Richard F. Outcault.

During the 1890s, “The Yellow Kid” was a popular comic strip available to read in New York World. Hogan’s Alley aka The Yellow Kid comics was about an Irish 10-year-old immigrant boy named Mickey Dugan. He usually spoke in a baby-talk slang that was regional from the New York City slum neighbourhoods of the 19th century. He was drawn with no hair, a wide two-tooth smile in yellow dress pyjamas. He sometimes has something written on his pyjamas as the captions for the comic scene. The comic creation reflected the style and attitudes at the time. The comic strip is known as the first newspaper comic strip showing early panel-by-panel comic strip and serialized fiction debuting in illustrated magazines like Max and Mortiz, Puck, Police Gazette and New York World. It was a very popular comic strip at the time. The comics at the time were political and social commentaries sometimes in full colour by lithographic printing presses. Old-time theatre and vaudeville acts influenced most of the cartooning industry in this era with narratives, slapstick, dramatic gestures, background scenes, dialogue influencing comedic setups and storytelling through drawn pictures. The attitudes against political figures like the Tammany Hall political machine or illustrations that are considered offensive by the later 1900s and early 2000s standards were common to see in comic strips from the late 1800s. He was called The Yellow Kid because of his pyjamas. The comic strips were printed with a new yellow ink that had trouble adhering to the paper. The yellow ink used to make the paper came off on the readers’ fingers often. One day, Hearst poached Outcault with higher pay from Pulitzer. Pulitzer was not happy and hired another cartoonist for his newspaper. Due to the cartoonist not copyrighting his comic strip, it was copied in the other papers by George Luks and was used for propaganda by others.

One of the first comic strips of “The Yellow Kid” printed on October 25th 1896 by Richard F. Outcault.

Both newspapers were accused by critics of sensationalizing the news to bring up sales. An English magazine in 1898 noted, “All American journalism is not ‘yellow’, though all strictly ‘up-to-date’ yellow journalism is American!” The term came from Erwin Wardman from the New York Press calling it yellow journalism based on the Hogan’s Alley comic strip. Wardman said phrases like this all the time, for example, “new journalism” to “nude journalism” to describe journalism he didn’t like. It was once called “school of yellow kid journalism” and “yellow-kid journalism” until it was shortened to “yellow journalism” because of the negative connotations and other editors in the field using the phrase. Furthermore, yellow journalism was also called the yellow press.

Yellow journalism” cartoon about Spanish–American War of 1898 by editorial cartoonist Leon Barritt, 1898.

The cautionary tale of yellow journalism would be one of the many factors that pushed the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines that led to the acquirement of overseas territories by the United States. It was the beginning of the Spanish-American War. Comic historian Bill Blackbeard speculated that “The Yellow Kid” comics might have been a victim of patriotic hatred towards Spain. Yellow is the colour the comics strip was known for and one of Spain’s national colours. Hearst and Pulitzer had an immense influence on the growing hate against Spain. They used unsubstantiated claims, sensationalist propaganda, and outright factual errors in their newspapers and magazines just to sell more copies.

The event that happened at the peak of yellow journalism occurred in 1898 when a U.S. battleship (USS Maine) sunk in the Havana harbour. The battleship was sent out by the orders of U.S. President William McKinley. It was to ensure the safety of American citizens and as a gesture to display naval powers to the Spanish forces. There was a planned visit of a Spanish ship to New York to defuse tensions between the two countries. The battleship sunk at 9:40 P.M. on February 15, 1898, after a massive explosion with 260 seamen on board the ship. The exact cause of the explosion was not known to the USA and Spain. But the Cuban government concluded that the explosion had occurred on board. Newspaper headlines had slogans that read “Remember the ‘Maine,’ to hell with Spain!” to garner support for an armed intervention with the war beginning around May 1898. During this time, Hearst turned into a war hawk after 1895 during the liberation wars for Cuban independence against Spain (1895–1898.) The two publishers often reported about the wars on the front page with great inaccuracy.

Due to sensationalized and exaggerated stories of the terrible conditions in Cuba, some people believe that Pulitzer and Hearst were the cause of the United States’ entry into the Spanish–American War. Even though their newspapers were only distributed in New York City, not countrywide or known to be a regional paper. And ruling parties like President McKinley and the governors in New York State may never have read their newspapers but got their information from creditable sources. Major factors that caused tensions that led to war would have been the expansion of overseas territories with Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt (before his presidency) in the 1880s. According to The Office of the Historian, Yellow journalism showed “the press had the power to capture the attention of a large readership and to influence the public reaction to international events.”

After the circulation war eased after four years, Pulitzer focused on things he considered to be more important in news like politics and business than murders, crimes and sensationalism. This cleaned up New York World until its demise in 1931. While Pulitzer was writing his will in 1904, he made up the Pulitzer Prizes as an incentive to excellence specializing in awards for journalism, letters and dramas, education and traveling scholarships.

Hearst had some controversy of his own when two columnists, Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Brisbane, wrote columns suggesting the assassination of President William McKinley. When William McKinley was shaking hands with the public, an anarchist Leon Czolgosz killed him by shooting him twice in the abdomen in Buffalo, New York. Hearst pulled Brisbane’s column after the first edition but did not know about Bierce’s column. The event haunted him until the end, ruining his chances for presidency.

Characteristics often used to describe yellow journalism during the Gilded Age:

  1. Front-page stories that ranges from sensationalized to exaggerated
  2. Huge print headlines often of minor news
  3. Lots of pictures, or comics
  4. Misleading news often filled with faked interviews, phony headlines, pseudoscience, anonymous sources by overzealous reporters and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
  5. Focus on full-colour Sunday supplements like comic strips
  6. Dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.
  7. Inflaming of national sentiments through slanted news stories, often related to Civil War
  8. Pandering to the large audience

It was early quality control and more of a focus of story over the picture. Also, it was to cut down on rumours, sandal-mongering, exaggeration and sensationalism. Sensationalism in media use selected and carefully crafted words to excite readers for a high readership count and to sell more papers. Stories are more emotional with a bias than remaining neutral.


Britannica – Destruction of the Maine

Britannica – Yellow Journalism

Office of the Historian – U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895–1898

Virginia University – Yellow Kid on the Paper Stage

The Public Domain Review – Yellow Journalism: The “Fake News” of the 19th Century

The First Amendment Encyclopedia (Middle Tennessee State University) – Yellow Journalism

Banner Credit: Cropped Image of “The Yellow Press”, by L. M. Glackens
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