The Yellow Journalism of the Internet Age
Fake news is a terminology that erupted in popularity on social media during the 2016 United States presidential elections. Despite its apparently recent etymology, in an article on Huffington Post, Claire Fallon explains that “prior to the late 19th century, English speakers used an obvious alternative to refer to what we now call fake news: ‘false news’ (2017). Furthermore, the term originates from exploitative and sensational journalistic practices of yellow journalism that found its start in the late 1800s. These practices are also found throughout the modern era of journalism, those years leading up to and since the development of the telegraph. According to Richard Kielbowicz, “the advent of electrical communication in the 1840s marked the most striking divide in the history of news gathering (2015). Prior to electronic communication, Kielbowicz notes that news was transported by means of transportation over land and water; while, after the invention of the telegraph messages were sent as electrical impulses over wires (2015). The change in mode of communication lead to a revolution of journalistic reporting. In 1969 communication theorist, James W. Carey states “the telegraph, by creating the wire services, led to a fundamental change in the news. It snapped the tradition of partisan journalism by forcing the wire services to generate ‘objective’ news, news that could be used by papers of any political stripe (1989). However, despite the break in the partisan practices that plagued journalism prior to the implementation of telegraphic messaging to which Carey speaks, reporting in the new millennium has not continued its relationship with partisan journalism, and returned to exploitative and sensational journalism as well.
As the United States grew and government formed political parties, newspapers followed suit. Dr. Jeffery Rutenbeck, Dean of the School of Communication at American University notes that as a well-established partisan press “newspapers availed themselves to and were intimately involved with the vital functions of America’s budding party system (Baldasty 1984; Ames 1972; Mott 1962). Even as late as 1850, fewer than 5 percent of American newspapers claimed independence from or neutrality in the political embattlements that so characterized the era (U.S. Census 1850, lxv) (1991). Furthermore, Dr. Rutenbeck remarks “partisanship also had deep cultural and social roots, amounting to a truly ‘popular’ sociocultural practice that was reflected in high voter turnout (by modem standards), massive public display and staunch party loyalty on the part of voters, as well as by newspapers and politicians (McGerr 1986; McCormick 1966) (1991). The view was that in the beginning century of independence from British rule, journalism played a vital role in disseminating information regarding government and politically based events, thereby informing the literate public, who could afford the cost of publications, to become involved within the process of the republic by supporting the various parties in elections. Associate Professor of Communication, Dr. Kristen Heflin writes that newspapers were less interested in the welfare of the public, and more concerned with being the workforce whose job it was to persuade the masses of various party agendas (2015). Additionally, “verifying information or promoting deliberation were not central goals of the media (Heflin, 2015). Thus, unverified, defamatory, and false news would have been common among publications attempting to gain followers for their respective parties.
Heflin continues by noting that many partisan presses received sponsorship from government officials through postage and printing contracts that supported newspapers’ business operations. Some corrupted publishers were offered positions within government and parties for their support. Critics to this relationship between the press and politics arose maintaining the need for a commercialized press and “a move away from party patronage and toward a form of journalism that served the informational needs of citizens (Heflin, 2015). Independence from partisan politics came at a cost of business for newspapers, and the attempt to increase readership resulted in the birth of the penny press. In this new format, press operators saw the value in creating exciting and fascinating stories from the mundane and routine. They sensationalized events to increase profit and were able to do so by selling papers at the reduced cost of a penny per issue thus reaching a wider reader base (Kielbowicz, 2015).
Heflin points out another root of the exaggeration associated with penny papers, the low wages editors paid writers and increasing demanded more work from those journalists. Reporters were paid “by space, a process that lead some journalists to exaggerate details or fabricate information to produce more sensational stories that stood a good chance of making the paper (2015). By reducing wage overhead, paper issuers created a competitive workplace where journalists pushed for outlandish and expanded stories that would be published thereby increasing their own pay. Publishers further sought to relieve themselves of the bonds created by partisan journalism and saw any means to that end to be required. These penny presses “took issue with traditional views of partisanship, claiming that the editors were “determined to conduct an independent paper… and nothing shall deter us therefrom (New York Sun 1834) (Rutenbeck, 1991). Further funds for business operations were pursued through increasing advertising sales. Dr Heflin explains that “[t]he increasing importance of advertising revenue coupled with rising operating costs created a situation that placed business interests ahead of providing accurate information or promoting deliberation (2015). This environment allowed editors to justify the publication or censorship of information either favorable or disparaging to advertisers in fear of losing a vital source of income (Heflin, 2015). These factors helped create an environment where papers were could be nonpartisan by being commercialized and independent, but at the same time, they practised unethical forms of journalism that did not enrich their readers with valid and vetted information.
The late 19th and early 20th century marked the continental divide between written and electronic communication. Following the telegraphs’ implementation beginning in the 1840s, the Liberal Republican movement and Progressive Era began influencing journalism. Rutenbeck states “the Liberal Republican movement of 1872 provided a focal point where the issue of partisanship came under systematic scrutiny by many of the nation’s most prominent newspapers (1991); while Heflin provides that “the Progressive Era also marked the start of a move toward professional journalism. Michael Schudson argues that during the 1880s and 1890s, reporting became ‘a self-conscious and increasingly esteemed occupation (2015). As stated in the beginning of this paper, Carey summarizes that the telegraph allowed for news neutrality. According to Associate Professor of Communication, Dr. Bolette Blaagaard, this view likely results from the practice of “the telegraph companies [which] sold the news to a variety of outlets, which meant that they had to be politically neutral so as not to leave out potential buyers, who subscribed to particular political views (2018). Kielbowicz’s article states that the new wires, like the Associated Press, spent years preparing a legal basis for ownership rights to news sent via telegraph to protect its control over what newspapers could publish articles based on membership within the organization (2015). Additionally, in her article, Blaagaard (2018) notes:
In the United States, the technology of the telegraph was controlled by the White majority and favoured [sic] commercially viable news and thereby homogenized the newsflow [sic] (Gonzales and Torres, 2011). Printing had become cheaper and circulation widespread, and although there was a keen interest in portraying the social inequalities in society, the journalists specializing in this ‘beat’ the so-called muckrakers focused exclusively on poor White people. This development ‘effectively curtailed any hope for structured change in the nation’s mass media at the dawn of the twentieth century’, argue Gonzales and Torres (2011: 182) The short and to-the-point reports favoured [sic] headlines rather than in-depth background journalism. Stereotypes were more easily digestible to American readers and at times the reports even instigated violence against minorities by forwarding racial stereotypes under the guise of objectivity
This is the beginning of the age of yellow journalism. A practice that favored “Self-activated journalism [that] ‘does not wait for things to turn up,’ [as William] Hearst’s Journal proclaimed in 1897, but actively works to ‘get things done’ (C. Carey, 2015). Dr. Craig Carey, Associate Professor of English, states the Spanish-American War is a “diverse archive of material culture to tell important narratives about the role of popular media in the production of spectacle, romance, and imperialism (2015). These media practices were generally accepted until 1923 when the American Society of Newspapers adopted and ethical code of conduct. Other journalistic professional societies followed suit in the following years (Heflin, 2015).
Another landmark moment in the publication of new happened in 1945 when the United State Supreme Court ruled on a suit against the Associated Press. This ruling about “the marketplace of ideas [stated that] ‘the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public (Kielbowicz, 2015). This ruling finds itself at the heart of news published not in newspapers, but on the internet. Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Dr John Pavlik (2000) explains the original format of information distribution from the media as: what Grunig calls the one-way, asymmetric model of communication. In this model, the flow of communication is primarily one-directional, from an organization to its public or publics. It is asymmetric in the sense that not only is the flow unbalanced, with one of the communication participants dominating the flow and impact of communication, but that one party (the message sender/content provider) intends to influence the opinion, and perhaps the behavior, of its publics.
The launch of public access to the internet changed the arrangement to a system of many providers to the public which in turn, may transmit information back to the media outlets. This new system Dr. Pavlik says “No longer [allows] most journalists and editors be content merely to publish the news. Instead, the process is becoming much more of a dialog between the press and the public (2000).
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The Yellow Journalism of the Internet Age. (2019, Jun 10). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/yellow-journalism-internet-age/
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