Release notes: yellow journalism

By Peter Gilliver, OED Associate Editor

Colour words are often interesting to work on because of the additional meanings they have acquired. I was fascinated by how sensationalist journalism came to be described as ‘yellow’. The colour has long-standing associations with cowardice and treachery—and that’s an intriguing story too—but that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with ‘yellow journalism’. The origins of this expression have been thoroughly investigated and written about by the American academic (and former journalist), W. Joseph Campbell, although I have been able to add some information to what he discovered; we often find that OED work both draws on and adds to the work of other scholars.

The story begins in 1895, when the New York World printed a cartoon by the cartoonist Richard F. Outcault, featuring a small boy wearing a dirty nightshirt-like garment, who soon became known as ‘The Yellow Kid’. The character became so popular that in October 1896, when Outcault was ‘poached’ by a rival New York newspaper, the Journal—owned by the legendary William Randolph Hearst—the proprietor of the World, Joseph Pulitzer (later famed for the prizes established in his name with money left by him to Columbia University), commissioned another artist to produce a cartoon strip featuring a character with the same name.

The fierce rivalry between the two newspaper proprietors, and the methods used by them to attract readership, became the subject of much critical comment in the American press; and for a few months writers reached for yellow-kid as a way of referring to the work of these lurid sensation-seekers. In early 1897 yellow-kid was shortened to yellow—the first printed example appears to be the headline ‘Victory for the Yellow Journalism’ in the New York Press of 31 January—and the shorter term soon became widely used, although occasional instances of yellow-kid can still be found as late as 1898 (such as the mention of ‘a Sunday paper of the yellow kid kind’ in the Christian Observer of 31 August).