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Is Social Media the 21st Century’s Version of Yellow Journalism?

yellow journalism

Yellow journalism has its roots in a feud between publishing giants Pulitzer and Hearst in the early 1900s. But the technique of sensationalizing the news is alive and well in 2020.

What is Yellow Journalism?

Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. The term was born from a rivalry that began as far back as 1895 between the two newspaper giants of the era: Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. 

While there is some historical debate, yellow journalism was possibly one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States. David Spencer’s book, The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power, discusses how yellow journalism expanded from this early birthright. The book’s forward by Geneva Overholser states, “Out of yellow journalism’s excess came a fine new model of newspapering.” 

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Yellow journalism techniques

We’ve come a long way from the banner headlines, color comics, and illustrations that were considered sensationalist in the early 1900s. Yellow journalism is alive and well today within the idea of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Sensationalized news is a circulation builder and most publishers understand how to use the appeal to their advantage. Television and the Internet make good use of yellow journalism by running sensationalized headlines typed in big, vivid fonts, consisting of news that is less than well-researched. But the best example of yellow journalism can be found today in social media venues such as Twitter or Facebook.

Social media today fuels yellow journalism

Social media provides a quick and easy vehicle for information distribution, with some stories that go viral, such as political news, celebrity gossip, or social injustice. In fact, media is being redefined in today’s social age, where one tweet can be seen by a news source and before they even have time to fact check it, it’s spread around the Internet. Often, these stories get embellished in their sharing in an effort to grow readership and bring attention to the media source.

social media overload

Modern yellow journalism is about reaction. And unlike the “reaction” garnered in the 19th century at the first use of yellow journalism, today’s social media platforms provide an almost instantaneous outlet for this form of journalism and optimal public reaction. While some view this as “fake news,” in fact, there may be a kernel of truth initially in the data. However, yellow journalism is about over-dramatizing a story, focusing on the most negative aspects of what is going on in our world to engage more followers.

There is enormous competition between these news outlets that scramble to be the first to report on the story. But with the speed of the Internet as their biggest competitor, it’s easy to see why reports take the risk of not verifying their information or waiting until the very last minute to verify a source.

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