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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: The Yellow Kid strikes again

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: July 8, 2023, 6:00am

I was watching television the other evening when a news promo aired during a commercial break. It was something like “Drinking water in danger!” that implies your tap water isn’t safe but in reality probably affects three houses in Oklahoma. The chain that owns this particular Portland TV station specializes in these kinds of sensationalistic promos.

It’s an old tradition. Sensationalistic promos and stories have been around since the 19th century “penny press.”

Let me give you a little history. The Industrial Revolution brought us telegraphed news and high-speed printing, and many more Americans had the opportunity to obtain at least some schooling. Newspapers became the first mass media, and any good-sized town had several competing papers, often associated with political parties.

Vancouver had The Columbian, which was a Republican paper, and the Vancouver Sun.

In places like New York City, papers were sold to the masses at a penny a copy. Thus this era is called the Penny Press.

It’s also the era of what was called Yellow Journalism. The term arose out of a battle between newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst about a comic strip character called the Yellow Kid.

According to The Ohio State University, the Yellow Kid, also known as Mickey Dugan, lived in Hogan’s Alley. The comic strip, which was drawn by Richard Felton Outcault, debuted in Pulitzer’s New York World in 1895. The bald Kid wore political and humorous messages on his ubiquitous yellow coat. It was the first successful comic strip, and it sold a lot of papers.

Hearst horned in a year later, bringing Outcault and the Yellow Kid to his New York Journal.

But Yellow Journalism was much more than a comic strip. According to an article authored by the U.S. State Department, “Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. During its heyday in the late 19th century, it was one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States.”

“Once the term had been coined, it extended to the sensationalist style employed by the two publishers in their profit-driven coverage of world events, particularly developments in Cuba. … Hearst and Pulitzer devoted more and more attention to the Cuban struggle for independence, at times accentuating the harshness of Spanish rule or the nobility of the revolutionaries, and occasionally printing rousing stories that proved to be false. This sort of coverage, complete with bold headlines and creative drawings of events, sold a lot of papers for both publishers.

“The peak of yellow journalism, in terms of both intensity and influence, came in early 1898, when a U.S. battleship, the Maine, sunk in Havana harbor.”

Eventually Yellow Journalism was replaced by “tell both sides of the story” reportage. Newspapers dropped political party affiliations.

But the rise of the internet led to a new era of sensationalism, often referred to as “clickbait.” I’ve even indulged in this. One morning back in 2009, I was filling in on the police beat when I came across a shoplifting report. I wrote a 54-word story for the web that I headlined “Vibrating condom, energy drink stolen.” It was the most-viewed story on columbian.com for many years.

I won’t do something like that again. Though it got a lot of clicks, this “story” wasn’t worth reporting.

Going forward, media needs to build trust with its audience by bringing them well-reported, significant news, not just four- or five-word promos taken out of context. But, they sure sound interesting.