How did yellow journalism affect people's viewpoints?
Yellow journalism affected people’s viewpoints significantly. This can really be seen in the events leading to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Prior to radio and television, most people got their news from what they read in the newspapers. It was very difficult to determine if the stories being reported in the newspapers were accurate or exaggerated.
By the late 1890s, the United States wanted to become a world power. Most of the land was already colonized, so in order to get land, we most likely were going to have to go to war. When the newspapers began to report on how the Spanish were mistreating the people living in Cuba, the American people were very concerned. The newspapers made the alleged mistreatment of the Cubans sound much worse than it really was. This helped stir up American public opinion against Spain. When the newspapers published a letter written by the Spanish ambassador to the United States that was very critical of President McKinley, this further inflamed American sentiment against Spain. When the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor, the newspapers jumped to the conclusion that the Spanish were responsible for this action. This event further increased the anti-Spanish sentiment in the United States and led to the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Yellow journalism clearly affected the viewpoints of many Americans, especially in regard to going to war against Spain in 1898.
“Yellow journalism” refers to the use of sensationalism and crude exaggeration to attract readers. The term was coined in 1895 when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal were competing for circulation. Both newspapers used misleading headlines and embellished reporting for the sake of entertainment value. While yellow journalism often succeeds in its object of attracting readers (and hence profits), it has obvious effects on public opinion. Pulitzer and Hearst published stories that exaggerated the mistreatment of Cubans by the Spanish, which bred public animosity toward Spain in the years leading up to the Spanish American War. The 1898 sinking of the US battleship Maine is often cited as the “peak” of yellow journalism. The World and The Journal spread rumors that the Spanish had plotted to sink the ship, despite evidence to the contrary. Though it cannot be indicted as the cause of the war, this type of journalism contributed to a climate of fear that generated support for the eventual military action.
The Spanish American War may be the most oft-cited example, but yellow journalism still influences the American news media. You may recall this attention-grabbing headline from 2009: “6 Year Old Boy in a Runaway Balloon” (FOX). This story turned out to be a hoax, but only after every major news channel had captured the nation’s attention. Sensationalism in the news tends to distract people from more pressing issues. While the public tuned in to watch the “balloon boy” saga unfold, the national news channels could avoid covering more pressing issues, such as the Great Recession, the health care debate or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yellow journalism is most influential during times of conflict, either to sway public opinion in favor of military intervention or to distract people from global conflict altogether by creating and exploiting irrational fears.
In The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner demonstrates how politicians and media manipulate the public’s perceptions to provoke needless worries. For example, In October 1970 the New York Times published a story about strangers poisoning Halloween candy, and this artificial panic has been peddled in the media almost every autumn since. A 1985 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post showed that 60% of parents feared their kids would fall victim to Trick or Treat terror. This is no doubt a result of the media’s lurid descriptions: “The ‘candy’ bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills” (The New York Times, qtd in Glassner 29-30). When sociologist Joel Best set out to research the alleged crisis, he found only two cases of children who died from poisoned Halloween candy, and both were perpetrated by a member of the child’s family. Glassner contends that the myth of anonymous Halloween sadists served to distract from the uncomfortable truth that children are much more likely to be abused by family members than by strangers. Other examples of sensationalized dangers in the 1980’s and 90’s include road rage, homicidal children, plane crashes, drugs and minorities. The shock value of these crime stories overshadowed their underlying causes and distorted public perceptions about violence.
Let’s take one more recent example. Since 2014 the news media has used a lot of airtime reporting on attacks by the terrorist group The Islamic State (ISIS). While these events are certainly newsworthy, the frightening imagery and tone of the coverage have clear effects on public opinion. Gallup poll data reveals that people exposed to more TV news are more likely to believe that a terror attack is likely to happen, and hence more likely to support US military action in the Middle East. According to a September 2014 Gallup Poll, 60% of respondents supported airstrikes against The Islamic State, up from 39% in June when ISIS sieged the cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Sinjar. Ironically, the media frenzy aligns with ISIS’ strategy to make itself appear as a large global threat when it is in fact relatively isolated. While Americans are barraged with images of beheadings and bombings, little airtime is devoted to the majority of ISIS’ victims who live Muslim countries. When ISIS coordinated attacks on Paris in November 2015, the American media showed solidarity with France. But when similar tragedies have occurred in non-western countries, the media tends to either erase the victims from the narrative or demonize them. Donald Trump is the most well-known recent example of a politician who has exploited Americans’ fear of terrorism to generate support for anti-immigrant policies.
These are just a few examples of “yellow journalism” in contemporary media and its visible influence on public opinion. As long as the news media emphasizes ratings and shock value over responsible reporting, America will have an increasingly misinformed and fear-driven populous.