Yellow Journalism

Yellow journalism is the use of sensational headlines, rather than factual news, to capture a reader’s attention. The hope is that the reader will choose one publication over its competitor. Examples of yellow journalism can be found next to any grocery store’s checkout line, with tabloids that boast about “shocking” celebrity news, or the “confirmation” of alien lifeforms. Modern yellow journalism runs rampant through the internet, daring people to click on scandalous stories, or shocking headlines. To explore this concept, consider the following yellow journalism definition.

Definition of Yellow Journalism


  1. A type of journalism that relies on exaggeration and sensationalism in order to draw in readers.


1890s   Newspaper circulation war between the New York Journal, and the New York World, in which sensational stories were printed.

What is Yellow Journalism

Newspapers were the original source of news, informing people of the goings-on long before radio and television were invented. In order to be successful in business, newspaper publishers began employing new methods to attract readers. This was the start of yellow journalism in the late 1800s, as publishers saw an opportunity to increase their revenue. The question became how they would make their newspapers stand out from the competition.

That’s where yellow journalism came in. In the 1890s, newspaper owners William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) came up with the idea to sell their papers using exaggeration, melodrama, and even romance. This style eventually became known as “yellow journalism.” Hearst and Pulitzer would exaggerate true events, and fabricate events that had never even happened, just to sell more newspapers. The main goal was to grab the reader’s attention, whether or not the details being published were actually true.

In modern times, yellow journalism can be found in grocery store tabloids and news headlines. Typically, if a headline contains an exclamation point, complete with words like “shocking,” “unbelievable,” or “astounding,” then the paper is probably engaging in yellow journalism. One of the most popular tabloids in the United States – The National Enquirer – is famous for its use of yellow journalism. Those running the tabloid have been sued several times for their publishing of “facts” pertaining to celebrities that were not, in fact, true, and which were potentially damaging to the celebrity’s reputation (slander).

Today, the term “yellow journalism” is used negatively to describe any journalistic style that treats real news either unprofessionally or unethically. or that puts forth information as true, which has no basis in fact. Examples of yellow journalism stories that would be treated in such a way are those that are either scare-mongering or scandal-mongering. The late American historian and journalist Frank Luther Mott said that examples of yellow journalism can essentially be defined by the following traits:

  • “Scare” headlines printed in large type, despite the news story itself being minor
  • Generous usage of photos or drawings to accompany the story
  • The writer being overly sympathetic with the “underdog” in the story and overly against “The Man” (the system)
  • Using fabricated interviews, deceptive headlines, pseudoscience, and/or false information from so-called “experts” to pad out a story

Mott also noted that papers would place particular emphasis on the supplements included with the Sunday edition of each newspaper, including the “funny pages,” to sell that particular paper, rather than the substance of its news stories.

Origin of Yellow Journalism

The term “yellow journalism” came from the comic “Hogan’s Alley,” which was published in Pulitzer’s New York World paper and was very popular. The comic featured a character who dressed in yellow and was called “the yellow kid.” So determined was Hearst to beat his competition that he actually hired the cartoonist responsible for “Hogan’s Alley” – R.F. Outcault – to create another yellow kid for his own paper (the New York Journal).

Additionally, Hearst copied the sensationalist style that Pulitzer used in his World. With the two “yellow kids” dueling it out, the journalistic style that was shared by the competitors – the originator and the copycat – was declared “yellow journalism” by New York Press editor Erwin Wardman. Despite the fact that both papers became known for their use of sensationalism, both did actually print serious news stories as well.

Yellow Journalism Example in the Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War has been often called the first “press-driven war,” and its end result was the end of Spanish rule in the Americas. The war was “press-driven” due to what was being printed about Spain in American newspapers at the time, in an attempt by publishers to drive sensationalism to sell papers. Publishers wanted readers to keep coming back and buying more papers, so they would present information in such a way as to exaggerate events, and sometimes flat-out lie about events that never even happened.

The war initially started with Cuba seeking its independence from Spain back in February of 1895. Spain was brutal in its methods to stop the Cuban rebellion, and their methods were presented graphically in American newspapers so as to rile up the public. The intention, of course, was not politically motivated; the publishers just wanted to sell papers. However, as a result, American citizens became sympathetic to the Cuban rebels, and demand rose for the United States to join the war. This demand was heightened by the fact that the U.S. battleship, the USS Maine, which had been sent to Cuba to protect American citizens and property, was inexplicably sunk.

Spain announced a truce with Cuba on April 9, and was working on a plan to grant Cuba self-governing powers, albeit limited. Shortly thereafter, however, the U.S. Congress offered resolutions that would give Cuba the right to independence, demanded that Spain withdraw its troops from Cuba, and authorized the President to use force in order to move Spain’s withdrawal along.

Spain responded by declaring war on the U.S. on April 24, 1898. The U.S. declared war on April 25, but the declaration was later made retroactive to April 21. Spain was, in a word, unprepared for a fight with the United States. Neither its army nor its navy were a match for U.S. forces.

Interestingly, while the U.S. was dragged into the war based on what newspapers were printing to rile up their readers, the country actually benefited from the exchange. The U.S. became a world power to be reckoned with, resulting in the country becoming a respected voice in international politics. On the other hand, Spain let its defeat redirect its focus to better developing its own domestic economy, rather than attempting to go out and conquer other lands.


Clickbait is the modern version of yellow journalism. The term “clickbait” is a negative one that describes web content that is only concerned with generating revenue from advertisements. Clickbait overpromises, or misrepresents what it is going to deliver, simply to get people to click on the articles. For instance, it is not uncommon for a clickbait article to be paired up with a shocking image that has absolutely nothing to do with that article. The sole purpose of that image is to make people interested enough to click the link. Once readers have followed the link, they will find some non-substantive, or even completely false article that is surrounded by, and teeming with, advertisements.

Clickbait articles are famous for using phrases such as “What happens next will shock you!” or “You won’t believe what happened when she …” Of course, the article does not tell the reader what happened. The headline is meant to spark the reader’s curiosity so strongly that he simply must click the link in order to find out what happens next. The sites benefit because the more page views they receive, and the more unique visitors stop by their site, the more advertisers will pay to post ads on their pages. The sites then receive a kick-back from the money that they earn for their advertisers.

The articles themselves are usually not concerned with being wholesome or accurate. Instead, they rely on sensationalist headlines the same way newspapers do. An eye-grabbing thumbnail is usually paired up with the headline to encourage the reader to click on the link, and readers are strongly encouraged to share these articles via their social media networks, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Clickbait headlines are meant to exploit what is known as the “curiosity gap.” They are intended to give the reader a quick taste of information to grab their curiosity without providing too much information at once. This is to bait the readers, making them want to read more, and to click through to the linked content.

Websites famous for using clickbait in order to get readers to click through to their content include Buzzfeed, ViralNova, and Upworthy. Famous satirical newspaper The Onion parodies these kinds of outlets with their own website, Clickhole. Ironically, Clickhole has seen significant success due to the fact that the headlines it posts can actually pass for clickbait themselves, encouraging their readers to read more. Facebook announced in 2014 that it was actively taking measures to reduce the number of clickbait articles that show up in users’ newsfeeds.

Similarly, websites such as Huffington Post, Salon, and the late Gawker Media blog have profited from engaging in a practice that current affairs magazine Slate describes as an “aggregation of outrage.” What this means is that these websites post articles that pair emotional content with blunt headlines to make readers want to read and share them. These pieces are short and simple, offering quick judgments on issues related to politics and culture, rather than in-depth articles that would earn them more respect as journalists.

Fox News vs. Snopes

In early 2016, Fox News sued the website Snopes, which had publicly called Fox a “fake news site,” and “clickbait,” in one of the articles posted to Snopes’ website. Fox sought damages in the amount of $20 million. Snopes is a website that specializes in debunking internet rumors. Fox claimed that one of Snopes’ main motivations for doing what it does is to drive traffic to its website, so as to make money its advertisers. In a way, Snopes participates in its own kind of yellow journalism.

Snopes founder David Mikkelson seemed to be confused about Fox News’ anger over the article, stating that the very definition of clickbait is what Snopes’ website is all about. He went on to say that clickbait makes up 99 percent of what readers see on the internet because sensational headlines are what motivate people to click on articles, and that Fox is just as guilty of participating.

Fox News has been accused in the past of reporting on issues in such a way as to scare or anger its viewers, in order to rile them up and keep them engaged. However, Snopes is just as guilty of engaging in yellow journalism by creating clickbait composed of accusations claiming that other reporters’ news stories are clickbait. Snopes maintains that the difference is in the fact checking, and that it provides its audience with source links that enable them to check out the facts on their own.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Melodrama – A sensational piece of drama with exaggerated characters and events that is meant to appeal to the emotions.
  • Thumbnail – A reduced-size image.