An Outlook on Yellow Journalism: is it legal?

The year was 1883 when Joseph Pulitzer is popularly known for the Pulitzer prize; purchased ‘The New York World’, an American newspaper which was in circulation from 1860 till 1931. Pulitzer then increased the circulation of New York world from only 15,000 to 600,000 making it the largest sold the newspaper in the US at that time; this was due to the big changes he made in the format, presentation and content of the newspapers.

On the other side of the spectrum, in 1895, William R. Hearst, a popular businessman at the time purchased another newspaper namely, ‘The New York Journal’ from the Pulitzer Brothers. Much of Hearst Empire like The Oprah Magazine, Food Network Magazine, Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and many other magazines, newspapers and broadcasting stations still exist today. It was at this time when a massive Circulation war emerged between Pulitzers New York World and Hearst New York Journal. This war was what directed for the term ‘Yellow Journalism’ to be coined.

Origin of Yellow Journalism

Before moving further on what yellow journalism is, let’s understand how the term ‘yellow’ came to be. It was during the circulation war, when an American cartoonist Richard F. Outcault, who is also the maker of the yellow kid (an American comic strip character), was hired by Hearst with an insane amount of money to work for the New York Journal. Richard had been previously working with Pulitzer, drawing the yellow kid for the New York World. The yellow kid appeared from 1895 till 1898; first in the New York World and later in the New York Journal. And since these two newspapers were the only ones using the yellow kid comic strip during the circulation war, the kind of news published by the two was distinguished from the average newspapers published in America at the time.

As a result of the circulation war both the newspaper, agencies were willing to go through any lengths to cover the streets with their product, they were equally criticized and hence others used the term ‘yellow journalism’ to indicate the overly sensualized content published by both New York World and New York Journal. In order to stay on the top of the journalism industry, the two newspapers continued to milk stories from the Spanish-American war and published exaggerated stories of the battle which were often false and non-factual. Later as the time passed, Yellow Journalism was viewed as an unethical part of journalism which even today is viewed negatively.

A Brief Introduction

After so much of history and timeline of events, what is yellow journalism? The answer is quite simple because it is what we see and hear all the time. Yellow Journalism is an unfamiliar term to most of us but the authors believe that terms like ‘sensationalized media’ or ‘exaggerated headlines’ does a ring a bell. Simply, Yellow journalism is a type of journalism that relies on sensational, exaggerated and distorted stories to sell the news.

To outsell each other, newspapers or any other news media use wild overstatements, eye-catching headlines and even outright fabrications which are all forms of yellow journalism. In today’s time, Yellow Journalism is a derogatory way of referring to an unprofessional or unethical form of journalism. Even though today we don’t explicitly use the term yellow journalism, its characteristics are very similar to Fake news which are fabricated to spread as hoaxes or as a calculated attempt to disseminate untruths. Some of the other characteristics include-

  • Misleading headlines
  • Faked interviews
  • Pseudoscience
  • Lavish use of pictures
  • Scare headlines in huge prints

Yellow Journalism and the Law

There are no explicit written laws on yellow journalism. However, the elements that contribute to yellow journalism like fake news, defamation, over sensualization, exploitation, abuse of facts, written or spoken falsehood can amount to a violation of laws. The following phrase sums up the legality of yellow journalism. ‘Is it Legal? –Yes, but is it ethical? –No’. Even though there are no concrete laws doesn’t mean it is ethical or justified for news Media to publish news to manipulate the public into buying their news. Yellow Journalism violates people’s right to receive real, factual and impartial news and it hinders the relationship between citizens and the government due to the spread of fake news by the mid-man that is the media.

Case Laws on Yellow Journalism                    

Ranchi Timber Traders Association & Ors. v. State & Ors[1].

In this case, the popular newspaper, ‘The Times of India’ published the orders of the Court under inverted commas without verifying from the court the certified copy of the order due to which the court held that such forms of Yellow journalism were not expected from the newspaper. The court also held that such forms of the uncalled and unwarranted form of publications by newspapers without verification amount to Yellow Journalism.

Shahib Singh Mehra v. State of Uttar Pradesh[2]

In this case, the Supreme Court held and cautioned that reckless comments should be avoided. It was portrayed through this case that even though the press holds a vital position and enjoys an important role in this free society, the press must be deemed to have certain limitations. The liberty of the press must be set to the right tune and Abusive exercises, Yellow Journalism must not hide under the disguise of freedom of the press or in the form of literary works.

Shri Dnyandevrao Tatyrav Waghmode v. Alllabaksha Gulab Nadaf & Ors.[3]

The court held that Media is to be used for the awakening conscience of the people for worthy causes of social and political interests. And also right to information is a fundamental right of the citizens of a country however, the kinds of journalism such as the yellow journalism are to be condemned and as for those who resort to these cheap publicity stunts for defaming others should be convicted by the people themselves.

The court held that newspapers should be focused on making the people literate and informative for awareness of what is going around them through correct information. Simple and sophisticated language should be used instead of exaggerated and sensational language in order to touch the souls of the people who read them so that it is more effective in achieving the purposes of journalism with the purest of intentions of spreading awareness and not manipulating or insulting people for views or sales.  

Smt. Archana Guha v. Sri Ranjit Guha Neogi Runu Guha Neogi[4]

Freedom of Speech is one of the key features of the Indian Constitution which also covers the freedom of the press under its ambit. However, freedom is not absolute; there are certain restrictions and limitations to those freedoms. This is because irresponsible media or rather Yellow Journalism cannot be protected under the freedom mentioned in the constitution. The rights of the press as in the 19th and 20th century compared to today’s rights and freedom of the press has certainly been limited. This is due to the rise of undependable medias capable of manipulating the public through the content they present to the world. And hence complete freedom to do as the media pleases would allow the media to take the laws for granted and take the path far more immoral and unethical thus certain restrictions and limitations should be there. 

The Way Forward

The current scenario is that news has become worse and that mainstream media cannot be trusted most of the times. The extreme high on sensationalization and low on context is not a fair deal as it taints the information due to bias and exaggeration to an extreme point where it can no longer be called real journalism. Not only is there the problem of too many news but the news we get is much more fractured and biased. For something to be journalism, it has to strive to have as little bias as possible from the author, if it doesn’t then it’s just an opinion, not journalism. Journalists or the media as a whole should understand that false accusations aimed at blaming a political opponent, for example, can lead to confusion discord and even violence.                             

The way forward for the journalism industry to be upfront and honest about the news they serve. And the public who view the news should be able to differentiate between what to believe and what not to and question the reliability of the source. Once the people learn to properly exercise their right to information, eventually, with time, media will be forced to serve more contextual and factual ‘real’ news because then the readers would be the ones they would have to face. Questioning the reliability of the information on the face of the media presenting it and holding them accountable for any fake news would awaken the morality and ethics of journalism.


[1] Ranchi Timber Traders Association & Ors. v. State & Ors., C.W.J.C No. 3687 of 1996 (R).

[2] Sahib Singh Mehra v. State of Uttar Pradesh, A.I.R 1965 S.C. 1451.

[3] Shri Dnyandevrao Tatyrav Waghmode v. Alllabaksha Gulab Nadaf & Ors., 1999 (5) BomCR 398.

[4] Smt. Archana Guha v. Sri Ranjit Guha Neogi Runu Guha Neogi, 1990 CriLJ 2012.

Prashamsa Ghimire from National Law College, Tribhuwan University, Nepal.

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