Audience Engagement Interesting and Timeless
10 mins read

The evolution of yellow journalism (and why it matters)

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Let’s talk about human nature for a moment.

In November 1849, a well known English writer and social critic wrote a letter to the British daily newspaper The Times after he was left deeply shook by an unfortunate event that happened in front of a local prison in South London.

Namely, around 30,000 people gathered there to see a public execution of both Marie and Frederick Manning, a married couple who had together murdered Marie’s ex-lover, Patrick O’Connor, robbed him and – obviously – failed to get away with it.

The above-mentioned writer was the great Charles Dickens himself, and he was also present at the execution. He chose to remain a quiet, unobtrusive spectator and watch both the hanging of the convicted criminals and the reactions of the gathered mob. He was deeply agitated to see how little people cared and how uncannily they were entertained by death.

This true story is just one of the many examples of the unflattering side of us humans, our inborn tendency towards sensationalism, and our almost barbaric curiosity. It is also an indicator of our need to be up to date and in the center of what’s happening, particularly when it’s something profane or primitive.

However, this story also provides a great example of the educational duty newspapers have and the standing they have as moral barometers. Dickens wrote to The Times because he was outraged and felt a moral obligation to do so. He recognized their function as a mouthpiece for spreading ideas and supporters of the public’s well being, values today’s editors still value and champion.

So, what happens when you give entertainment (regardless of how dark and twisted it may be) priority over information and critical reasoning? You get yellow journalism.

The danger of giving the audience what they want

Yellow journalism emerged in the mid 1890s in New York City and was associated with the writing tactics of two renowned journalists, William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World. Hearst and Pulitzer were bitter rivals in the publishing world and they battled hard for circulation.

Back then, the largest portion of the reading public consisted of the working class and newspapers cost a cent or a two. In an attempt to increase sales, editors started experimenting with sensationalism and introduced big headlines, descriptive stories, images, scandals, and gossip. It was also not unusual to see “unnamed sources” in the yellow press: facts were frequently fabricated to attract more eyeballs.

The Big Apple gradually became a well-known place of vivid writing that offered these kinds of cheap thrills on daily basis. The term “yellow journalism” was allegedly coined by Ervin Wardman, the editor of the New York Press, who also used the term “yellow kid journalism”. “Yellow journalism” referred to the color of the newspapers themselves, while “yellow kid journalism” referred to the popular comic strip published by both Pulitzer and Hearst.

Pulitzer was prone to publishing aggressive news coverage and he used sensationalism to address corruption and scandals in politics or dramatically report about political affairs, and Hearst was not far behind. In fact, historians argue that thanks to their profit-focused publishing approach, the American public was left grossly misinformed about the happenings in Cuba in 1898.

For those who need a brief recap, that year, the U.S. vessel Maine in the port of Havana suffered an accidental explosion and sank, but rather than investigate the incident more thoroughly, publishers were quick to stir things up a bit and suggested the involvement of the enemy, Spain.

Chasing sales and readership, the yellow press eventually succeeded in riling up the public’s pro-war attitude and contributed to the the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, a pretty harmful consequence of the desire for increased newspaper sales, by anyone’s standards.

The righteous fight back

Of course, yellow journalism did not manage to destroy the ethics in reporting completely. The public eventually got fed up with the fake extras and all the drama. Because hey, being entertained is one thing, but being deceived is another. The need for trustworthiness and honesty was again restored.

Protectors of the profession raised their voices and fought back in an attempt to urge social responsibility among journalists. One of the first notable breakthroughs came from W.E. Miller in 1910, who proposed The Code of Ethics for Newspapers. Miller wanted to give the industry something concrete to hold on to and to standardize the norm of truthfulness for media, and it was a success. Journalists’ practices that included fiddling with the truth for the sake of sales were strongly condemned.

Simultaneously, courts started reacting to the problems of false reporting, and the newspaper industry followed. According to Sidney Pomerantz, we have The New York Times to thank for bringing the balance back as this newspaper proved it was possible to avoid sensationalism, yet be profitable.

These are just a few of many notable key players who worked hard to bring integrity back to journalism. Today, various types of journalism ethics codes and standards exist and although they vary from country to country and the responsible entity that introduced them, they are very similar in scope.

There is an international consensus on the fundamental points of ethical reporting: honesty, accuracy, truthfulness, and unbiased reporting remain the highest values to preserve.

Alas, while ethics in journalism have developed, that doesn’t mean yellow journalism was put to rest. In fact, it has evolved.

Clickbait and fake news

Fast forward to the digital era and the new faces of yellow journalism come in the form of clickbait and fake news.

Clickbait was born under the commercial pressure that the age of hyperconnectivity brought to newsrooms. Editors were supposed to monetize on information, despite the fact it became so easily accessible for free. They had to find a way to generate revenue and keep their publishing business afloat while also competing for readers’ attention. The answer was simple: turn to clickbaits and ads. Ads have been the unfortunate lifeblood of many publishing businesses, so in this equation – clicks mean money. But clickbait can’t last.

As Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardiansaid: “Clickbait stories have somewhat diminished the value of news – they sell on stars in and out of bed… and that’s one way of getting the clicks. […] People are beginning to say ‘we need more stories, we need actual things happening’ because that brings back readers and encourages engagement.”

Clickbait confirms that, just because something attracts one’s attention – doesn’t mean it’s worthy of it.

And what about fake news? Fake news is far more dangerous for readers compared to clickbait articles. The latter might cause frustration and provide a poor experience, but the former can leave people misinformed about significant current affairs. The phenomenon of fake news gained momentum after the US President Donald Trump was elected, but this doesn’t mean it didn’t exist before.

Throughout history, media has been used and misused to shape public opinion. It enabled propaganda machines (and sometimes was the propaganda outlet itself), pushed often harmful political agendas forward, and fabricated reality. The only difference now is that fake news is far more shareable thanks to online media and requires far fewer resources to produce and disseminate. Research has shown fake news travel six times faster compared to fact-based news.

But, who’s to be held responsible here?

Post-truth and the Big Lie

We tend to blame the Internet for these phenomena and point the finger at the rotten digital publishing businesses when in fact – it’s more complex than that. We all participate in this ecosystem. Every time you share something sensational without validating the source, or every time you do click to find out “how this one secret ingredient will help you lose 35 kg in a month” – you actually play your part as the recipient of this low-level content.

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.

When the line between the truth and a lie gets paper thin as to become practically invisible, it’s almost inevitable that readers will either buy into the illusion or remain confused about what is true. (The first line of the Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has such a sad undertone in this context, doesn’t it?)

Because so many outrageous and incredible things are happening in the world, we have become a bit numb and far harder to shock. Our bar for believing something that simply cannot be – has dropped terribly low, and we have entered the infamous post-truth era.

Most frequently tied to a political context, post-truth has become the buzzword of the 21st century. In fact, it was Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in 2016 which explained it as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The media plays an important role in building and maintaining the post-truth world, which is why some believe journalists have fallen at the bottom of the ladder, on a par with politicians, in terms of public trust.

To shine a different light on what the post-truth is about, we can use one historical and one movie reference:

  • The Big Lie, propaganda technique introduced by Hitler and used by the Nazis
  • Famous drama movie A Few Good Men, in which Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Jessup who under interrogation yells the much-quoted sentence: “You can’t handle the truth!”

The Big Lie referred to using a certain outrageous lie and distributing it as the truth. The lie would be so colossal that the public had no choice but to perceive it as true, given the fact it was humanly incomprehensible that someone could distort the truth so deeply. Also, repetition plays an important part in transforming a lie into a truth, which is something many politicians are well aware of. The post-truth world and its malicious actors know how to take advantage of the techniques and rhetorics that reminiscence the Big Lie.

As for the above-mentioned movie, it opens up a very important question for us: can we handle the truth? Or do we simply choose not to? This leads us to confirmation bias and the phenomena called “kayfabe”.

Confirmation bias and kayfabe

We know that media can be manipulative. But, it can also misinform by accident and act inadvertently, lead by the desire to be the fastest to get a certain story in front of their readers. But, what about the audience? How do they handle false news?

Shockingly enough, readers are not very good at spotting fake news. So now, we must explain how confirmation bias works.

Humans tend to favor the type of information that aligns well with their existing beliefs and biases. When we encounter a story we like, we will probably accept it without a dash of criticism. In fact, we might reject other stories that contradict it or choose to ignore them. This can happen consciously or without us even realizing it. Either way, it is quite dangerous.

If we turn truth into a matter of choice, it will become meaningless. Yellow press and online media that distribute fake news and use sensationalism as a growth tactic, act as catalysts in this context. They enable misinformation and weaken our ability to think critically, making the post-truth world the only place we can inhabit.

However, there are other points of view out there. For instance, one of the most renowned historians and philosophers of today, Yuval Noah Harari, believes we have never left the post-truth world because we are a post-truth species. Fiction and false stories are what unites humans, which has always been more important than knowing what is true.

In that sense, it’s also worth mentioning kayfabe, a concept that comes to us from professional wrestling. As most of you probably know, wrestlers don’t actually fight each other, but perform. But despite the fact everything is staged, it is perceived to be true because the audience shows the will to play along. Simply put, we all know it’s fake – but we don’t really care.

As Jeremy Gordon pointed out in his article for The New York Times, this concept of staged reality goes beyond the entertainment industry and can be clearly seen in politics and media. It is sometimes hard to see where our actual behaviour ends and our meta-behaviour starts.

And, if we may add, kayfabe outside of the ring survives because those ‘performers’ rarely have to suffer through the consequences, and we – the readers – don’t seem to mind that much. On the contrary, we turn to laughter, think about the absurdity of the world, and make the most of it.

Where can journalism go from here?

When someone who is supposed to be the guardian of truth lies to you or betrays your trust, unintentionally or on purpose – it’s not that hard to see it brings a fiery issue to the fore.

Metaphorically speaking, giving children too much candy results in tummy aches and rotten teeth, and you’ll get similar effects by feeding readers with bombastic headlines that tickle their primitive curiosity and make their hearts race for all the wrong reasons.

So, we have established that yellow journalism, fake news, and clickbait articles are bad. But, how are journalists supposed to earn a profit?

Ads are already half-extinct as users have developed banner blindness and don’t even register them anymore. For media outlets that function within the private sector, it can get pretty tough out there, money-wise.

However, there are sustainable business models that work. Established names such as The Guardian or The Local have proven that memberships can generate significant revenue while strengthening the relationship with readers, and native advertising can provide both value and profit.

Back in the day, publishers turned to sensationalism because they were pursuing volume, which made sense in that advertising system (despite the fact it was unethical). Today, optimizing for volume is not a very successful monetization strategy. Things have changed: you have to think about nurturing meaningful relationships with your readers, earning and preserving their trust, not just increasing the number of daily visits.

Now that the new paid model of content has emerged, publishers have an important task: they need to optimize for quality. And what a challenge this is! It requires a completely different approach to measuring content success, which is a revolution we at Content Insights are trying to bring forward with our editorial intelligence tool.

Publishers need to move away from yellow journalism and providing cheap thrills and focus on bolstering their integrity in the digital arena. This is important, not just for the sake of business continuity, but for the sake of keeping the public properly informed too.

And so, back to Dickens…

Although he is best known for his literary work, many biographers would argue he was primarily a journalist who happened to write fiction on the side. Dickens wrote for several different publishers. While working for the Morning Chronicle, he earned a reputation of “being the most rapid, the most accurate, and the most trustworthy reporter then engaged on the London press”. In 1846, he started a liberal newspaper of his own, The Daily News, in which he advocated the “principles of progress and improvement; of education, civil and religious liberty, and equal legislation”, and this was only the beginning of his publishing career.

Keeping the public properly informed was exactly what Charles Dickens was passionate about. This serves as a pretty good reminder of the duty and responsibility newsrooms have, doesn’t it?

by Mia Čomić

Republished with kind permission of Content Insights, the next generation content analytics solution that translates complex editorial data into actionable insights.