The Search for Definition
The definitional elusiveness of yellow journalism was underscored in a study published in 1900 (and often cited since) that said yellow journals had emerged in many metropolitan areas of the United States.41 The study was drawn from a very limited content analysis 42 conducted by Delos Wilcox, who conceded having encountered great difficulty in developing a quantitative test permitting him to differentiate the Journal from the New York Evening Post, a leading conservative (or non-yellow) daily edited by E. L. Godkin.43
Wilcox finally decided that yellow journalism's salient characteristics were the above-average emphasis on news of crime and vice; the use of illustrations; the publications of want ads and medical advertising, and the tendency to advertise or call attention to its accomplishments.44
Those categories were decidedly imprecise, to be sure. Conservative titles, for example, often gave prominence to news of crime and vice. As T.T. Williams, the business manager of Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, observed in 1897: "The most eminently respectable newspapers in this country at times print matter that the so-called sensational paper would never dare to print - but the so-called respectable newspaper escapes uncriticised because it does not look sensational."45 Moreover, Wilcox's characterization of the yellow press underemphasized the typographic exuberance and design experimentation that typified the genre.46
Media historian Frank Luther Mott offered a somewhat more revealing and inclusive set of defining characteristics, and usefully pointed out that yellow journalism "must not be considered as synonymous with sensationalism." Yellow journalism, Mott said, certainly reflected "the familiar aspects of sensationalism - crime news, scandal and gossip, divorces and sex, and stress upon the reporting of disasters and sports."47 But the genre was more complex than merely sensational; its "distinguishing techniques," Mott said, included the use or appearance of:
- prominent headlines that "screamed excitement, often about comparatively unimportant news."
- "lavish use of pictures, many of them without significance."
- "impostors and frauds of various kinds," including "faked's interviews and stories."
- a Sunday supplement and color comics.
- "more or less ostentatious sympathy with the underdog,'s with campaigns against abuses suffered by the common people."48
Mott recognized that his criteria represented "an enumeration. . . of something grotesque and vicious" - an acknowledgment of subjectivity that diminishes their value in defining and explaining yellow journalism.49 Mott's criteria, moreover, inadequately reflect the newsgathering enterprise that characterized the yellow press and fail to recognize fully the variety of content that the yellow press typically presented.
The Defining Characteristics
This study argues for and presents a more encompassing set of defining characteristics 50 of yellow journalism, a set of characteristics derived from the close reading of issues of the New York Journal and New York World during the first half of 1897, when the term began appearing in print in New York City and beyond. This set of characteristics, moreover, acknowledges not only the complexity of yellow journalism; it recognizes the genre's aggressive flamboyance, its inclination to experiment with page design, and its eagerness to call attention to itself. Thus, in its most developed and intense form, yellow journalism was characterized by:
- the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
- a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
- the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
- bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page.51 Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
- a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading reporters (such as James Creelman, who wrote for the Journal and the World).
- a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper's accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.
As defined above and as practiced a century ago, yellow journalism certainly could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired- complaints of the sort that were not infrequently raised about U.S. newspapers at the turn of the twenty-first century.52
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41. Delos F. Wilcox, "The American Newspaper: A Study in Social Psychology," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 16 (July 1900):56-92.
42.Wilcox for the most part drew his conclusions by examining only one issue of each of the 147 newspapers in his study. See Wilcox, "The American Newspaper," 78.
43. Wilcox, "The American Newspaper," 77.
44. Wilcox, "The American Newspaper," 77. Conservative newspapers, Wilcox said, were characterized by an emphasis on political and business news, letters and exchange material, and "miscellaneous advertisements."
45. Cited in American Journalism From the Practical Side (New York: Holmes Publishing Company, 1897), 314. Emphasis added.
46. The typographic flamboyance of yellow journalism was noted in many contemporaneous accounts. For example, Hartley Davis wrote in Munsey's Magazine in 1900: "The presentation or eplaying up's of news is one of the important features of modern journalism in New York. It is the distinguishing mark of the so-called "yellow journalism" because "yellow journalism" consists principally of huge head lines of a startling nature, big and striking illustrations, and heavily leaded type in which the facts are presented in the most interesting style." Davis, "The Journalism of New York," 220-221. See also, Holmes, "The New Journalism and the Old," 77-78.
47. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History: 1690-1960, 3d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 539.
48. Mott, American Journalism, 539.
49. Molt, American Journalism, 539. Molt noted that his criteria contained the "germs of newspaper techniques which are certainly defensible and which have since been developed into general and respectable features."
50. These features were the central elements of a content analysis discussed in Chapter Five.
51. See, among many other examples, "Remington and Davis Tell of Spanish Cruelty," New York Journal (2 February 1897): 1. The front page was almost entirely devoted to a sketch by Frederic Remington to illustrate a dispatch by Richard Harding Davis about a Cuban rebel's execution by Spanish firing squad.
52. See, for example, Sharyn Wizda, "Breathing Life into Newsprint," American Journalism Review (November 1999): 49-50, and Michael Kelly, "The Know-Nothing Media," Washington Post (10 November 1999): A39. Kelly's characterization was especially harsh: "Reporters like to picture themselves as independent thinkers. In truth, with the exception of 13-year-old girls, there is no social subspecies more slavish to fashion, more terrified of originality and more devoted to group-think."