Empires, Power, and Yellow Journalism

5 Min Read

Sarika Saiyara

The Spanish-American War changed a lot of things — for one, it fueled the United States’ first media wars with the advent of yellow journalism. Out of all the colours visible to the human eye, why choose yellow?

The reasons are disputable. Some sources point to the yellow ink the publications of that era would sometimes use. However, it is widely believed that the term stemmed from the popular cartoon Yellow Kid that first ran in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and later in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal: The two newspapers engaged in the circulation war at the heart of the furor.

The notion of newspaper reporting that emphasises sensationalism over facts is, in fact, nothing new. During its peak in the late 19th century, yellow journalism screamed outrage, with headlines including “Who Destroyed Maine? $50,000 Reward”, “Spanish Treachery”, and “Invasion!”.

But how did newspaper reporting exert such a huge influence on a nation’s decision to go to war? To understand that, we have to delve deeper. 

These days, the name of Joseph Pulitzer is somewhat synonymous with journalism of the highest standards, through association with the Pulitzer Prize established by provisions in his will. While alive, however, Joseph Pulitzer had quite a different reputation. He and his fierce rival, William Randolph Hearst, in a battle for readers, extended their sensationalist style to their profit, which was driven by the coverage of world events, particularly developments in Cuba. 

Cuba began its fight for independence from Spain in the mid-19th century, the resistance’s early efforts were met with brutality. Spanish general Valeriano Weyler rounded up insurgents and held them in horrific conditions, leading some to credit him with the invention of modern civilian concentration camps. The Spanish government’s brutal treatment of Cuban insurgents pulled at American heartstrings. Helping the Cubans fight for autonomy re-affirmed Americans’ faith in the virtues of their own revolution.

The rebellion endangered US trade relations with and interests in Cuba. In any case, there were larger reasons to go to war. In the late 19th century, the United States’ continental frontiers were gone. International muscle-flexing could open remote markets to keep the US economy going solid. In addition, the United States would become a worldwide force, which would establish its global hegemony in the later era.

The press did not create these driving forces, yet it played upon and intensified them. An example would be the Spanish-American War sometimes being dubbed as The Journal’s War due to Hearst’s monumental influence in striking the chords of anti-Spanish sentiment in America. 

However, one should note that, in the late 19th century, journalism was at its infancy. There were no protocols, standards, or ethics to abide by. Garnering more readers was the only goal in sight, and even major publications couldn’t resist the sensational and slipshod reporting when the Cuban story came along. As a result, the war in Cuba was the biggest foreign news story for Americans up to that time. An estimate says, at least 75 reporters had been there in the three years leading up to the war.

Correspondents took their pro-Cuba message to the American mainland, which created a continuous feedback loop. The journalists testified on Spanish transgressions. In such a news atmosphere, Americans’ feelings infuriated. In schools, the American Pledge of Allegiance turned into an everyday custom. In their homes, Americans used Spanish flags as toilet tissues. 

Could the Spanish-American war have been caused without the influence of yellow journalism? The answer is a probability we cannot precisely calculate. However, needless to say, the notion of the Journal’s War still exists to portray the power of the news media at its most malignant. The much recent phenomenon of “fake news” is an uglier successor of yellow journalism that relies on exaggeration, catchy headlines, and sensationalism that needs as much delicate care as its predecessor, to avoid outbursts. 


Sarika Saiyara likes to describe herself as “a glowing ball of passion and persistence”, and devours conversations on anthropology and physics.

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