Re-visiting Yellow Journalism: Sensationalism in Commercial Media
By Shireen Khan
A decade more than hundred years ago, the boycott took shape in winter 1897 as public and university libraries, reading rooms, and social club in New York city banned two battling competitors: William Radolph Hearst’s ‘New York Journal’ and Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘New York World’. They were together derided as vile, shameless, frivolous and morally bankrupt. The press seized evocative term to disparage the ‘Journal’ and ‘World’ – a phrase swiftly adopted as the boycott’s rhetorical centerpiece.
That phrase was ‘Yellow Journalism’.
The term ‘yellow journalism’ and also known as the ‘yellow press’, was coined by Erwin Wardman of the ‘New York Press’ and never elaborated what it really meant, and only after a while, in explanation he gave in his paper was a comic strip in 1998 saying ‘We call them yellow because they are yellow!’. But however, the content that raged public opinion and stroked bans can be summarized as the type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. The aim deciphered was to increase newspapers’ circulation and attract more and more readers; the willingness to experiment with layouts (sometimes the front page of the ‘Journal’ was dominated by a single article and outsized illustrations), and the content that was established in that era was majorly crime stories with no obvious in-depth research and sensationalizing it with nationalistic agendas and painting it with connotations like ‘we’ and ‘them’. Readers began buying their own copies of Journal and the World, providing a small stimulus to sales. But in large measure, yellow newspapers overwhelmed the boycott because they were more energetic, more enterprising and more interesting to read that were the practitioners of what the Journal called “Old and fogy journalism”.
The main effect of yellow journalism is often adduced to Spanish-American war in 1898 that is believed to have fought due to the exaggerations of terrible conditions in Cuba. Newspapers like Hearst’s ‘Journal’ and Pulitzers’ ‘New York World’ sensitized the events, picturing it as the ‘worst kind of human torture possible’; thus provoking conditions that spoke frivolity, which, in return, is believed to be the main reason that raged American Public and made its Government step into war. (Though some mass media researchers like W. Joseph Campbell considers it as a myth), but this concept is a generally accepted module mass media practitioners.
In the 21st century, where the major mass media channels are owned by major corporations (like in the US, Cable News Network CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting which in turn is one of the companies owned by the media conglomerate AOL Time Warner, and developing conglomeracies in Pakistan like Independent Media Corporation owning GEO TV Network and several newspapers), it is believed to be interrogating, somehow, the same media attitude which with its partial picture reporting, blurs the real picture of reporting with the complete absence of objectivity. And this was highlight by Noam Chomsky in his land mark work on Media entitled ‘Manufacturing Consent’. He explains what the present commercial media to be called “concentrated ownership, wealth, profit seeking nature of major mass media firms”, where advertising is essential to media firms, profit and success, which encapsulates the major theme of these media houses as ‘Breaking ethical rules of journalism with the absence of objectivity in reporting’, thus intervening the very relationship of media to its masses. The media content is aimed at higher ratings and viewership in electronic media, which in result only increases its advertisements, and the real issues and the in-depth reporting curtained. And this is what the essence of “yellow journalism” is – not presenting the news in an unbiased manner, but rather spinning and reworking it to make it as dramatic and urgent as possible in an effort to boost demand and consumption.
In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Howard theorized that mass – media firms would at times censor themselves if it would maintain a beneficial relationship with “credible” sources such as government figures. These sources have the attractive benefit widely recognizable and considered trustworthy by the general public making them valuable as a marketable commodity.
The content that the present commercial media adheres is based on commercial interests. Mainly, seeking to attract the advertisements which mean more money and more profit. Even when the conflict is real, the packaging of them is invariably shallow and unquestioning; like sportswriters, and war correspondents abandon any pretense of objectivity and detachment, and cheerfully root for that side. Arundhati Roy, when pointing out to the role of what she calls as “Corporate Media” in Iraq war, she induces the opinion that there were very significant events taken place in the Iraq war but were never reported. Even foreign media correspondents of CNN, while reporting, used many words like “partial terrorists” for Iraqi people who stood against the US invasion. CNN seems to be virtually chomping at the bit for, as they have already marketed it, a “Showdown: Iraq”.
The commercial media happens to believe in something near to contemptuous, as with the first bomb dropping, the theme music, catchy titles, and expert analysts will be rolled out. Media show screaming public and people starving for food, with disasters that had been dawned on the people on seemingly interrogative enemies that are beyond the nationalistic agendas. The slogan of ‘’patriotism’’, which is important to public and advertisers who sought to market them. This is a viscous circle which end paves to commercial interests, and to the media, even more profit. US media, like the working of media in 1896, punctured the very essence of objectivity in reporting. In their propaganda model, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn points out the most significant point throwing light on media workings “A propaganda approach to media coverage suggests a systematic and highly political dichotomization in news coverage based on serviceability to important domestic power interests”.
Considering the current workings of commercial media in about all around the world, it is the revival of yellow journalism. Sensitization of issues to govern profit for corporations, the media is however, highly questionable. The vacuum has been created in between the masses and its media, and the situation however is important to be addressed. For it is important and vital for future prospects of social dynamics and the workings of media in it. It will only lead to disaster, and more conflicts. The absence of facts which are important for objectivity in reporting, and presenting a blur picture of events will create more vacuum, more war, and even more consequences.