What Was Yellow Journalism? A History of the Free Press in America

Although many might think the term “fake news” is a recent phenomenon, media bias has been around as long as the free press, thanks to yellow journalism!

Dec 8, 2022By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
what was yellow journalism
Joseph Pulitzer (left) and William Randolph Hearst (right) being criticized in a political cartoon for biased and sensationalistic yellow journalism, via Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)


In the late 1800s, as more Americans moved to urban areas and began to read newspapers, rival newspapers began competing for readers by focusing on sensationalism rather than pure facts. Yellow journalism printed highly sensationalized news, partisan, and prone to editorialism (opinions) rather than simply informing readers of the facts. The famous competition between rival publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst intensified in the 1890s during the Cuban War of Independence, which coincided with newspapers’ incorporations of photographs and colored ink. To sell more newspapers, publishers incorporated illustrations and sensational titles. Allegedly, this media sensationalism helped push America into the Spanish-American War in 1898.


History of the Free Press in America

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An image of the 1734 trial of John Peter Zenger, whose acquittal led to protections for libel if criticisms were true, via the University of Michigan


The first newspaper was printed in the Thirteen Colonies in 1690 but quickly folded. Thirty years later, a newspaper returned, run by the older brother of famous Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was later given the paper, which he named The Pennsylvania Gazette. He published opinionated letters written by readers, as well as his own musings. After its initial foray into partisanship during the French and Indian War (1754-63), the Gazette became more partisan during the American Revolution Era, when it heavily criticized British taxes and repressions of the colonies.


In nearby New York City, The New York Weekly Journal was founded by John Peter Zenger in 1733. It quickly began criticizing the colonial governor, who had Zenger arrested. A jury acquitted Zenger because it believed the newspaper’s criticisms of the governor to be true. This groundbreaking trial established the precedent of a free press in America: a newspaper could not be punished for telling the truth, even if the truth upset political leaders.


Free Press in the Early American Republic

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An image showing a man criticizing a sedition act in 1798, via New York University


Newspapers had helped rally public opinion during the American Revolution by criticizing the British. When the Bill of Rights was written in 1789 to add to the United States Constitution, its First Amendment was devoted to the freedom of expression. It included freedom of the press. If the Bill of Rights or Constitution protected something, no law could be arbitrarily passed that limited it. In 1798, the Sedition Act was passed to prevent Americans from criticizing the government, which some considered to be a major violation of the First Amendment.

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The Sedition Act expired in 1801, and new US President Thomas Jefferson pardoned all of those who had been convicted of breaking it. While this was a move in favor of the free press, it did not answer the question of whether or not a law like the Sedition Act was constitutional. By this point, there were about 200 newspapers in the United States. Since relatively few Americans were literate, newspapers tended to publish information favored by the merchant class and wealthy landowners. Although the news was biased, the lack of widespread readership prevented the need for competitive sensationalism.


Partisan & Penny Newspaper Era (1830-1860)

partisan news era
A screenshot of an educational video explaining the partisan news era beginning in the 1830s, via University of Illinois, Urbana


A surge in newspaper readership began in the 1820s. Thanks to industrialization and increased literacy, there was now both the supply of and demand for newspaper print. In urban areas, newspapers competed for an audience among the new middle class. Now that there was competition to attract readers, these new penny papers (named for their one-cent price) began using sensationalism and popular rhetoric to appear to common citizens. Ironically, it was partisan newspapers, which were allied with a local political party, that were less sensational. These more expensive newspapers tended to have government support and a loyal readership, meaning competing penny papers had to become more entertaining to attract readers.


In New York City, competing penny papers–the New York Herald and the New York Sun–often criticized each other and were highly susceptible to any whims of editors. By the 1850s, however, newspapers became more orderly and professional, with their respective staffs trying to make them more logical and orderly to read. Although newspapers became more professional in terms of delivering news, they did not shed their partisan leanings. Part of this was due to partisan leanings of owners and editors, while part was due to government subsidies established by partisan politicians.


The US Civil War & Its Effect on Journalism 

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A newspaper showing a large illustration on January 3, 1863, via the American Antiquarian Society


The outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861 led to a tremendous demand for news, which led newspapers to adopt new technologies like the telegraph and use extensive railroad travel to get reporters and correspondents to the action. For the first time, the public could learn about the results of battles within days rather than weeks. As the public also wanted images, newspapers dramatically increased their use of illustrations (photographs would not enter newspapers until 1880). Reporters were sent to battlefields for the first time to provide up-to-date and accurate information.


Due to the intense emotions surrounding the conflict, partisanship and satire were common. Northern newspapers frequently mocked the Confederacy in political cartoons and articles and vice versa. However, the Confederacy had relatively few newspapers due to both having few large cities and having few printing presses. Due to the lack of photographs, newspapers may have used emotional language and elaborate drawings to attract readers and convey the same level of intensity as photos. The tragic assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln only weeks before the end of the Civil War received elaborate news coverage.


Stirring Up the Masses: Gilded Age Journalism 

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A political cartoon criticizing political machines during the Gilded Age (late 1860s-1890s), via the US Department of State


After the US Civil War (1861-65), the Republican Party, which was the political party of the Union, dominated national politics. In urban areas, newspapers went from being divided along political party lines to being more focused on populist issues. A continued increase in literacy rates meant that newspapers could be successful by appealing to the middle class rather than the wealthy. As a result, journalism during the Gilded Age (late 1860s-1890s) became focused on exposing the corruption of the wealthy and political leaders.


The theme of rooting out corruption was well-founded, as politics during the era included political machines in large cities. In this era, prior to civil service laws, elected officials had tremendous control over the distribution of government jobs and services. Political loyalists were awarded government jobs, even if they were entirely unqualified. City neighborhoods that did not vote for a winning candidate could be denied municipal services like water, sewer, police protection, fire protection, and parks. Although newspaper coverage was still heavily biased, it did hold government officials accountable by exposing corruption to angry voters.


Yellow [Kid] Journalism

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An image showing various political images during the Gilded Age era of yellow journalism, via PBS & GBH Educational Foundation


Improved newspaper technology during the Gilded Age allowed for new innovations like the inclusion of photographs and colored cartoons. The first colored cartoons, in 1894, were published by newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer. One popular comic, Hogan’s Alley, had a character named “the yellow kid.”  Rival publisher William Randolph Hearst wanted his own popular “yellow kid” and even hired the original artist away from Pulitzer. Thus, the sensationalized news reporting of the era, which newspapers used to compete for readers, became known as yellow journalism.


Yellow journalism became most known through the Spanish-American War of 1898. Between 1895 and 1898, the growing Cuban War of Independence between Spain’s colony of Cuba and its imperial ruler was sensationalized by Pulitzer and Hearst. Both publishers sensationalized the situation in Cuba and even printed false stories to make Spain look more barbaric. When the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in early 1898, newspapers quickly blamed Spain and encouraged swift retribution. Although the US government had its own goals in defeating Spain and seizing its colonies, it is undoubted that yellow journalism assisted in rallying public support around that goal.


Sensationalism vs. Censorship in Wartime 

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US soldiers training in photography during World War I as part of the Signal Corps, via the National Archives, Washington DC


While newspapers were highly partisan and sensationalized between 1800 and 1900, the US Civil War set a precedent of government censorship during wartime. In 1861, the Post Office Department was allowed to censor newspapers that were allegedly printing pro-South material. Similar to its refusal to deliver mail from the South, the Post Office would refuse to deliver any newspapers it thought unpatriotic to the Union. The following year, the War Department began directly censoring the printing of newspapers in the North.


Censorship returned during World War I, with stories from the front having to be approved by military authorities. News had to be patriotic, support the war effort, and “maintain high morale.” During this era, newspapers were also limited in which battlefield photos they could publish, including that they could hurt public morale. However, this began to change during World War II.  In September 1943, the efforts of Life magazine correspondent Cal Whipple convinced US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to reverse course and allow the publication of the now-famous photo by George Strock of dead US soldiers on a beach in the Pacific theater of the war. It turned out that the American public appreciated the honesty.


Unfiltered Images: 1960s & Television News

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A screenshot of a news report during the Civil Rights era, revealing violent tactics used by law enforcement against peaceful protesters, via PBS & GBH Educational Foundation


Unfortunately, the debate over the appropriate role and action of the media returned with a vengeance in the 1950s. A new medium, television news, spread rapidly, complementing radio news that had been popular since the 1920s. For the first time, Americans could watch newsworthy events and not have information filtered through a journalist. Many accused the news media of returning to sensationalized coverage during the Second Red Scare of the early 1950s, amplifying fear of alleged communists in American society. However, the media could also be used strategically: the downfall of ultraconservative US Senator Joseph McCarthy, known for persecuting suspected communists and using false information to do so, began when the White House leaked damaging info about him to the press.


Television news proved to be extremely powerful in shaping public opinion. During the early 1960s, video clips were broadcast around the world showing violent police responses to peaceful Civil Rights protesters. Public support for segregationists and racists quickly evaporated, and major Civil Rights legislation was finally passed in Congress. Television news was difficult to accuse of sensationalism, as it simply showed the actual events occurring. Later in the same decade, television news also quickly eroded public support for the Vietnam War. Although US President Lyndon B. Johnson complained that TV coverage of the war was divisive, censorship of non-secret information did not return.


Changing Norms in Reporting Politics 

richard nixon media
A photograph of US President Richard M. Nixon, who served from 1969 until his resignation in 1974, via the Richard Nixon Foundation


The Second Red Scare, Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam War opened deep social and cultural divides in the United States. Many accused the news media, via newspapers, radio, and television, of furthering the divide. During the 1960s, political norms regarding media deference to political leaders began to wane. Up through the presidency of John F. Kennedy, the news media largely ignored the sex scandals of presidents. Part of this may have been rooted in the patriarchy, as women were poorly represented in newsrooms during the era.


However, media deference toward presidents collapsed during the Vietnam War. Richard M. Nixon, the winner of the 1968 presidential election, had an especially negative relationship with the news media. He issued blanket criticisms of “the press” and hated the principle of the media using anonymous sources. As a result of Nixon’s heavy-handed disdain for “the media,” it was not unsurprising that the media did not hold back on its reporting of the Watergate Scandal that erupted in 1973. When Nixon eventually resigned in August 1974, the news media was allegedly at its peak of public support: the free press had overcome political threats to report the facts and root out corruption.


Post-Nixon: 24-Hour News Cycle & Media Bias

yellow journalism media bias today
A chart comparing alleged media bias, via League of Women Voters of Torrance Area


After the Watergate scandal, the relationship between the media and political figures changed.  In 1987, the Gary Hart scandal was widely reported by both the mainstream media and the tabloids, raising questions about the proper role of the media regarding politicians’ personal lives. The media focus on the personal life of US Senator Gary Hart (D-CO) was a break from precedent and utterly destroyed his candidacy for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. This new era where the media could, and would, focus on the personal lives and histories of politicians and others raised debates about media bias.


One reason for the expansion of what the media could focus on was the birth of the 24-hour news cycle, which began around 1980. The rise of cable television had created many more viewing options, and TV stations had to compete for viewers. Similar to the expansion of newspapers leading to sensationalized coverage 150 years earlier, the expansion of TV news into a 24-hour cycle resulted in more aggressive journalism. Many people, however, thought the coverage was often biased based on the political leanings of the journalists and media companies: liberal-leaning networks would nitpick the lives and actions of conservatives but leave liberals largely unscathed, and conservative-learning networks would do the opposite.


Today: Internet News & “Fake News”

yellow journalism fake news
An image of a falsified news story, which is an example of fake news, via Northeastern University, Boston


In the early 2000s, the 24-hour news cycle became supplemented by the rise of Internet news. Today, Internet news and social media have largely replaced printed newspapers, moving yellow journalism to a new medium featuring terms like “clickbait” and “going viral.” Similar to newspapers trying to attract readers with colorful images (“yellow kid” journalism), today’s news websites use dramatic titles and descriptions to try to draw viewers. The use of such titles is known as clickbait and is often criticized as misleading. However, Internet news differs from the newspaper era in one key aspect: instead of trying to draw in all readers, media outlets are accused of playing to their distinct groups of readers.


Instead of focusing on the facts, news outlets are often criticized for focusing on parts of stories that will appeal to existing viewers and readers. This has led to the rise of accusations of “fake news.” Although fake news technically means news stories containing false information, the term has become genericized to include information that is seen as biased. A common term for media and political focus on unimportant trivialities to criticize an individual or group is often called a “nothing-burger.” However, the Internet allows people to visually alter photographs and news stories to include false information and then spread them via social media, making widespread fake news a recent phenomenon.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.