Yellow journalism mainly helped to influence the way that Americans responded to the events that led up to the war. The yellow journalists dramatized events that happened so as to excite Americans and influence them in favor of war with Spain. One example of this was the way in which the yellow journalists played up the atrocities that they claimed were committed by the Spanish against the Cubans. Another example was the reaction to the explosion of the USS Maine. Again, the yellow journalists whipped up anti-Spanish feelings in the American public, claiming, for example, that it was known that the Spanish had blown the ship up.
By doing these things, the yellow journalists helped to influence Americans to be more in favor of the war. This was the main role that yellow journalism played in the approach to the war.
Yellow Journalism took its name from a comic strip entitled "The Yellow Kid." It was used to denominate newspapers who specialized in sensational headlines. In a time before radio and television, truth often took second place to spectacular headlines which drew readers.
Two champions of Yellow Journalism were Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York Journal and William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York World. Each was in bitter competition with the other, and often published questionable material as a means of increasing sales. During a purported revolt in Cuba, Hearst grossly overstated the details of the revolt, and published an editorial referring to the Spanish general as:
Weyler the brute, the devastator of haciendas, the destroyer of men.
A famous (although unverified) anecdote states that Hearst sent famed photographer Frederick Remington to Cuba to send back pictures of Spanish atrocities in the Cuban insurrection. Remington presumably wired Hearst that there was no war going on to which Hearst replied, "you furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." Whether true or not, the anecdote aptly illustrates the attitudes of both Hearst and Pulitzer.
The explosion aboard the USS Maine occurred when many of the ship's officers were at a dance sponsored by the Spanish governor. At the time of the explosion, many Cuban workers on the dock jumped into the waters and risked their own lives to save Americans. The Captain of the Maine urged calm; but the story (and opportunity) were too good for Hearst and Pulitzer to pass up. They published headlines reading "Remember the Maine," Called the explosion a "dastardly act of sabotage, and even offered huge rewards for information on the perpetrators who blew up the ship, even though there was overwhelming evidence that the explosion was accidental (which it was.)
The actions of the two publishers stirred up already troubled diplomatic waters, and Americans would settle for nothing less than War. As a result, Congress declared war on August 25, 1898. Interestingly, Spain had declared war on August 23; so Congress backdated its declaration to August 21. It is hardly likely that this unnecessary war would have happened were it not for the frenzy whipped up by Hearst and Pulitzer.