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May 21, 2008 - Sunny Day
Sensationalism - Stories about violence, crime, emotion, sex have been in the news since the first newspapers. When competition for circulation was intense, this form of coverage would play a larger than usual role in some newspaper sales. Ultimately, the outrage expressed over this style of news coverage was heard; the decline in seriousness of reporting and good taste was noticed and the public outcry was for the return of the more standard style of news coverage.
In the 1830s and 40s crime news and human interest stories filled large portions of the “news hole”. James Gordon Bennett’s Herald became the best selling newspaper in the United States due largely to his willingness to report on the details of bloody murders and pass on rumors of sex scandals. This paper became the object of a “moral war” led by other papers in 1840 because of its sensationalist style of reporting.
Sensationalism entered its second period in the late 1800’s – this was primarily due to Joseph Pulitzer who took over the New York World in 1883. Pulitzer was an unusually aggressive, demanding and intelligent editor who fought battles on behalf of workers, immigrants and the poor. He was innovative too - his Sunday paper was expanded to include women’s and sports pages and the first color comics in newspapers.
William Randolph Hearst was an admirer of Pulitzer. When he acquired the New York Journal, Hearst & Pulitzer began a turf war of sorts to gain the largest circulation in New York. They cut the price of their papers to a penny, tried to hire away each other’s editors and reporters, and they began to fill their pages with more bloody, bizarre and salacious stories. This was also a time of “stunt” journalism. Circulation for both papers sometimes topped a million copies a day!
Out of the battle between them for the rights to a particular cartoon character, the “Yellow Kid” , came a new term for sensationalism: “Yellow Journalism.”
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