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Two figures representing William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer push against blocks that spell out the word war.
The big type war of the Yellow Kids. Leon Barritt, 1898

Media and Misinformation: Studying Yellow Journalism with Students

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This post is by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.

Concerns about the dissemination of misleading or sensational information, and its possible effects on society, is nothing new. In the January/February 2024 issue of Social Education, a journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article examines primary sources related to yellow journalism from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yellow journalism was characterized by an emotional, sensationalist reporting style, designed to titillate the public’s imagination and increase readership for profit. While newspapers such as Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal did profit from using this style, critics also accused them of cynically manipulating public opinion, with dangerous consequences. Some charged the yellow press with stirring pro-war sentiment that led to the Spanish-American War. Others suggested that newspapers fomented discontent leading to the assassination of President William McKinley. While many historians dispute the singular role of newspapers in causing such events, primary sources from the time do show anxiety over the impact of sensational news on public sentiments.

Cartoon featuring character Puck pointing at two men holding flags. A woman representing justice stares at the two men; one is holding a flag with the words Yellow Journalism and the other holds a flag that reads anarachy.
The Reds and the Yellows. 1901

The article suggests launching this topic by inviting students to analyze the 1901 political cartoon: “The Reds and the Yellows.” Encourage students to comment on the cartoon’s allegorical aspects. Who is each character and what does the character represent in the real world? How do the characters interact with one another? What do these interactions say about the cartoonist’s message?

Responses might include:

  • The man holding the “Yellow Journalism” flag wears flashy clothes and adopts a wild pose. He appears to be screaming, while clutching papers with headlines such as: “The president is the creature of the Trusts,” and “Assassination is the only remedy.”
  • The man holding the red “Anarchy” flag looks dark and menacing and holds a bomb. The figures holding the flags are presented together, as a pair.
  • A woman labeled “Justice” glares at the figures holding the flags with a disapproving gaze. A boy, identified as “Puck,” stands beside her and says: “Don’t forget that they are two of a kind – equally responsible for the death of our President!”

Based on their observations and reflections, encourage students to develop a working definition of “yellow journalism” and comment on what the cartoonist’s message might be.

The article also suggests avenues for follow up student research. For instance, students can explore historical newspaper articles, such as “The Spirit of the Press,” to deepen their understanding of how yellow journalism was viewed after the McKinley assassination. Other cartoons and newspaper articles, like “The Yellow War,” comment on the yellow press during the Spanish American War. Chronicling America even has a yellow journalism research guide, complete with an introduction to the topic, historical timeline, and curated list of historical newspaper articles. Also take a look at the recent Headlines and Heroes blog post on yellow journalism during the Spanish American war.

As students research yellow journalism from the past, they may also wonder about how it compares to the dissemination of news and information today. Leading a class discussion on the topic could be a useful extension, helping students draw meaningful connections between the past and present, and gaining perspectives on each.

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Comments (2)

  1. Thank you

  2. I really appreciate the information and references in this article. This is a topic I introduce in social studies and expand and apply in reading comprehension and writing exercises. Finding material like this is a tremendous resource which I intend to include in my lessons. I love seeing my students start to think for themselves and apply these skills in many of their interactions with all kinds of media as well as with people and situations. Thank you for your effort and sharing it!!!

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