Alternative facts, fake news, and post-truth have become common terms in the contemporary news industry. Today, social media platforms allow sensational news to “go viral,” crowdsourced news from ordinary people to compete with professional reporting, and public figures in offices as high as the US presidency to bypass established media outlets when sharing news. However, dramatic reporting in daily news coverage predates the smartphone and tablet by over a century. In the late nineteenth century, the news media war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal resulted in the rise of yellow journalism, as each newspaper used sensationalism and manipulated facts to increase sales and attract readers.
Many trace the origin of yellow journalism to coverage of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, and America’s entry in the Spanish-American War. Both papers’ reporting on this event featured sensational headlines, jaw-dropping images, bold fonts, and aggrandizement of facts, which influenced public opinion and helped incite America’s involvement in what Hearst termed the “Journal’s War.”
The practice, and nomenclature, of yellow journalism actually predates the war, however. It originated with a popular comic strip character known as The Yellow Kid in Hogan’s Alley. Created by Richard F. Outcault in 1895, Hogan’s Alley was published in color by Pulitzer’s New York World. When circulation increased at the New York World, William Randolph Hearst lured Outcault to his newspaper, the New York Journal. Pulitzer fought back by hiring another artist to continue the comic strip in his newspaper.
The period of peak yellow journalism by the two New York papers ended in the late 1890s, and each shifted priorities, but still included investigative exposés, partisan political coverage, and other articles designed to attract readers. Yellow journalism, past and present, conflicts with the principles of journalistic integrity. Today, media consumers will still encounter sensational journalism in print, on television, and online, as media outlets use eye-catching headlines to compete for audiences. To distinguish truth from “fake news,” readers must seek multiple viewpoints, verify sources, and investigate evidence provided by journalists to support their claims.