Yellow Journalism and the Spanish-American War

Battle of Santiago

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Yellow journalism, or the practice of exaggerated, sensational reporting, is believed to have played an important role in shaping public opinion in favor of the Spanish-American War. In the mid-1890s, media tycoons Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst, owner of several newspapers, began publishing human-interest stories, sometimes about murders or tragedies, in a competition to increase sales. When news of an escalating conflict between Cuban rebels and Spanish colonizers reached the U.S. mainland, Hearst saw an opportunity to apply this kind of dramatic reporting to the most dramatic story of all: war.

Profiting from Resentment

Cuban Reconcentrados receive food

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There is a well-known anecdote about Hearst that is typical of yellow journalism. In 1897, Hearst sent Frederic Remington and Richard Harding Davis to Cuba to report on the conditions there. According to the story, when Remington wired back that everything was peaceful and asked to return home, Hearst is said to have replied by telegram, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war." Hearst proceeded to label Spanish general Valeriano Weyler "the Butcher" because of his harsh policies. Hearst's papers also ran stories about Weyler throwing nuns in prison and attacking women. These stories were often not true, favored only one side, and tended to grossly inflate all death counts and statistics. However, some did serve a valuable purpose. Stories about shortages of food and water and photographs of hungry children were an accurate depiction of conditions for many ordinary Cubans.

On January 25, 1898, the USS Maine arrived in Havana to show the American flag and intimidate Spain. This event was worthy of only a small story, and a report from Hearst reporter Julian Hawthorne about hungry Cubans received much more coverage. Above this story, Hearst placed a headline that read: "Cuban Babes Prey to Famine, Thousands of Children of the Reconcentrados Perishing in Island Towns, Sights that Sicken Strong Men." In the story, Hawthorne demonized the Spanish, writing that they were "more pitiless than Kurds." He also described piles of dead bodies as a result of Spanish oppression. While Hearst sensationalized the Spanish concentration camp policies, he also neglected to report most of the atrocities committed by the Cuban insurgents.

Teddy Roosevelt and Rough Riders charge up San Juan (Kettle) Hill

Click to Enlarge Teddy Roosevelt and Rough Riders charge up San Juan (Kettle) Hill

The De Lôme Letter and the USS Maine

In February of 1898, two events occurred that moved the United States closer to war with Spain. On February 9, a letter from Enrique Depuy de Lôme, Spanish minister to the United States, to a Spanish editor touring Cuba was stolen by the latter's secretary and passed along to the Cuban insurgents. A facsimile of the letter, which was sharply critical of U.S. president William McKinley, soon appeared in the Hearst papers. De Lôme called the president "weak and catering to the rabble, and besides a low politician who desires to leave a door open to me and to stand well with the jingoes of his party." Hearst's papers labeled this letter as "The Worst Insult to the United States in History." Spain recalled de Lôme before the letter appeared in print, but the American public was outraged.

On February 15, the Maine blew up in Havana harbor, causing the deaths of more than 250 of its crew. While it was most likely the result of an internal explosion or a mine set by the Cuban insurgents, on February 17, all of Hearst's papers ran the headline, "MAINE BLOWN UP BY TORPEDO." Underneath, and in much smaller print, were the phrases "Such is the belief now gaining ground" and "May have been anchored over a mine." This event, and the outrage produced by Hearst's sensational and misleading headlines about it, are widely considered to be the tipping point for the beginning of the Spanish-American War.

Andrew McCormick
Andrew McCormick earned BA degrees in History and Mathematics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an MS in clinical psychology from Antioch University. He previously worked as the Project Editor for ABC-CLIO's Military History products.
MLA Citation

McCormick, Andrew. "Yellow Journalism and the Spanish-American War." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, Accessed 17 Aug. 2022.

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