Is “yellow journalism” dead?

YELLOW JOURNALISM, the scourge of the late 19th century American press, is alive and well in the 21st century, thanks to modern media and 24-hour news coverage.

What is “yellow journalism,” you might ask? The Oxford dictionary defines it as “journalism that is based upon sensationalism and crude exaggeration.”

Wikipedia explains it this way: “Yellow journalism, or the yellow press, is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news, and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.”

As I said, yellow journalism is alive and well in the 21st century.

ORIGINALLY COINED for newspaper activity in the period leading up to the Spanish-American War—the era of my newly released book The Captain’s Temptress  (formerly To Cuba With Love)—the topic of yellow journalism seemed a natural choice for a blog post.

Yellow journalism influenced the actions of my heroine, Samantha Ethridge, a society reporter who wanted to become a news reporter. Among other reasons for blackmailing her way aboard a ship carrying contraband weapons to Cuba, Samantha wanted to see for herself what was happening in that country and write the truth.

Yellow Journalism headlines of the New York Journal encouraging war on Spain over the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba. Scientists have proven the explosion was an accident. (A Wikipedia photo)

BUT THE MORE I thought about what I wanted to say in this blog, the more furious I became.

You see, I am a journalist. I belong to the profession I’m now standing on a soapbox about to preach against. I earned my Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the toughest and finest schools of journalism in the country. I’m proud of that. I worked hard for my education, and spent the better part of a thirty-five-year career as a journalist, adhering to all of the tenets of fair and honest reporting I was taught.

But I think the teachers of my journalism ethics class would roll over in their graves to learn that what passes as news reporting today is considered nothing but muck-racking by many old-school journalists like myself.

It used to be that when a newsworthy event occurred, there was the initial story, then a second day story, and possibly a third day story if the event was still unfolding. And then the story would disappear, or be buried on page 20, or dropped to the status of a one or two inch mention in a side column for follow-ups.

TODAY, YOU HEAR about it ad nauseam from this angle and from that angle, by this analyst and the guy or gal who thinks he or she is an analyst. The story is repeated every hour by newscasters who never fail to interject their opinion through words, voice inflection, facial expressions and the very nature of how a question is asked.

A journalist is supposed to be impartial, supposed to deliver the news without anyone having the slightest inkling of the reporter’s own opinion. Neutral. Back in the day, when I wanted to interject my opinion, I wrote an editorial for the editorial review board, or an analysis clearly marked analysis, or an opinion piece clearly marked opinion.

Today reporters are often asked for their opinion in the middle of presenting a factual report, and are more than willing to give it in the guise of unbiased reporting. Yesterday I heard a news reporter on a 24-hour-news channel, which shall remain nameless, flat out state that the mayor of Toronto is addicted and should take time out to get himself sober. It was her opinion, stated clearly after giving us a factual update on what had happened to the mayor that day.

AND THE LINE is blurring between factual reporting and the dissemination of rumor and innuendo. It used to be that if you couldn’t confirm a fact by at least two or more people, you left it out. “When in doubt, leave it out” was the mantra.

Today, it’s okay to say, “we have an unconfirmed report that . . .” Never mind that whatever is reported could ruin the life or the livelihood of an innocent person. Never mind that the rumor could be unsubstantiated gossip by a person bent on maligning someone else.

The public has a right to know, after all.

Well, in my opinion—and it is my opinion I’m stating here—the public doesn’t have a right to know something that might possibly not be true. That’s wrong, morally wrong. And the public doesn’t need to have stories, that twenty years ago would have been non-stories, rehashed, blown up into circus proportions, ground-up and spit out with every reporter’s opinions and spins plastered to it.

What happened to the mandatory journalism ethics class in those so-called “communications/journalism” schools of today? Gone, I’m afraid. Out the door in a budget cut. Or reclassified as an elective. Or worse, deemed irrelevant.

I COULD WAX on about the current state of journalism, but I won’t. Suffice it to say yellow journalism of the 1890s started a war—the Spanish-American War, and yellow journalism of the 21st century started the Iraqi War.

Spin. Gossip. Innuendo. Untruths and lies. They are all alive and doing as well today as they did in the 1880s and 1890s.

I’m so glad I’m writing historical romance novels.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to Is “yellow journalism” dead?

  1. Geneva Rand says:

    As an ex-journalist myself, I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that the Internet has blown everything up. Most news organizations have the choice to either report unconfirmed rumors or to look like they’re laggards when a dozen Twitter feeds and blogs are ahead of them in reporting what may or may not be a real story. Not sure what the solution is.

    I am hoping that eventually people will tire of info overload and there will be some more journalism-style filters in place. Probably naive of me.


  2. averilr2013 says:

    I hope you’re right, Geneva. At this point the only choice is to turn the tv off. But being the newsy I am, that’s pretty hard. But you’re right about the internet. There’s lots of wrong information circulating that people take for the truth.


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