Information is essential for humans. We cannot live without communicating and sharing information with others. Nevertheless, because we have limitations, we need a system which can guarantee the supply of information. Therefore, we have created a system known as journalism (Kovach&Rosenstiel, 2003: 15).
Journalism plays an important role in our daily lives. It gives us information, references and values. So, people should be concerned about the quality of journalism; it influences the quality of our life, thinking, and even cultures.
The Nativity of Yellow Journalism
The development of journalism cannot be separated from the rapid increase in technology, which was first marked by the invention of mechanical movable type printing in 1440 by Gutenberg, and also the invention of the Internet that changed the character of journalism in many ways.
Unfortunately, the improvement in technology does not always have positive consequences. According to Edelstein (2007: 75), the technological innovation, the development of newspapers and the competition to grab readers have led to a new kind of journalism known as Yellow Journalism. This type of Journalism was born in the United States in 1890, during The Spanish-American War. It was indicated by the “media war” between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer (retrieved 10 April 2010, available from: http://library.thinkquest.org/C0111500/spanamer/yellow.htm).
The term yellow journalism refers primarily to the cartoon character in the New York World, “The Yellow Kid” who wore an outsized yellow shirt. As this term became more popular, yellow journalism then referred to shameful journalism: journalism that focuses on sensationalism, dramatization, scandal and gossip.
Yellow journalism is often criticized because of its biased, unverified and inaccurate contents. However, this kind of journalism has its own admirers. Many people adore this journalism because of its readability and also its slanderous words. Some studies prove that people get bored with objective or ethical journalism since it offers ‘heavy’ issues. Thus, Jack Shafer suggests that the conventional newspapers need to adopt some techniques from yellow journalism. He argues that yellow journalism is not as bad as people assume. ‘Yellow journalism can be reinvented…in a way that preserves its best elements, subtracts the worst and still glows’ (retrieved 10 April 2010, available from: http://www.slate.com/id/2214969/pagenum/all/#p2).
Nowadays, yellow journalism has become the main style in modern newspapers. The ‘catchy headlines’, ‘humorous comic strips’, ‘special interest sections’, ‘intrusive investigative reporting’, are the indication of a yellow newspaper’s influence in today’s newspapers (retrieved 10 April 2010, available from: http://library.thinkquest.org/C0111500/spanamer/yellow.htm).
The existence of yellow journalism is influenced by several factors. One of these factors is market demand. The business interest, ironically, is the main factor that determines the quality of the newspapers. Publishers choose to publish a paper that is low in quality but high in benefit.
Moreover, the “white” publication can slip into compromise at the end and adopt the sensationalism of yellow newspapers when the market has forced them to do so. It has been proven by several studies. As an example, Sari Edelstein’s study on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work, The Yellow Wallpaper, reveals Gilman’s effort to counter the domination of yellow journalism, and her helplessness to compromise at the end because of pressures, including the market pressure (2007, 72-92).
Yellow Journalism in Indonesia
In Indonesia, the development of yellow journalism has been increasing rapidly since the 1998 reform, especially since the Law of the Press, Number 40, 1999, the law that guarantees the independence of the press, was issued. After this date, sensational journalism became the most popular style of Indonesia’s newspapers.
Unlike in other countries, some unique features characterize the yellow journalism in Indonesia. According to Iwan Awaluddin Yusuf, there are three special characteristics in Indonesia’s yellow journalism (retrieved 9 April 2010, available from: http://bincangmedia.wordpress.com/2009/11/22/menyikapi-%E2%80%9Cjurnalisme-kuning%E2%80%9D/). These characteristics are the exaggeration of the pictures, the colorful headlines and the irritating titles.
Yellow journalism in Indonesia focuses on three main topics: sex, violence, and horror. As described in the picture, yellow journalism in Indonesia pays great attention to sensationalism, especially sensationalism linked to women. Women are usually the victims in its publication. They are exploited by the press through their excessive and salacious titles and pictures.
That the contents of yellow journalism in Indonesia are in low-taste is irrefutable. Surprisingly, the circulation of yellow journalism in Indonesia is much higher than the “white” one. As proof, the circulation of Pos Kota, one of Indonesia’s yellow newspapers, is higher than Kompas Daily Newspaper. Pos Kota has 2,5 million readers with 600 thousand copies per day while Kompas has 2,2 million readers with 500 thousand copies per day (retrieved 19 April 2010, available from: http://forum.kafegaul.com/showthread.php?t=135908). It is ironic, because we know that journalism influences our quality of life. It leads to the question about what kind of society will be created when we get information from invalid and low quality sources like yellow journalism.
The information we get from the newspapers determines the way we respond to the news. If we get the information from an unreliable source, it is possible we will choose a mistaken response, for example news about the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. The Hearst newspaper successfully influenced public opinion to blame it on Spanish through its publication despite the fact that actually it was just an accident (retrieved 19 April 2010, available from: http://www.pbs.org/crucible/frames/_journalism.html).
Several studies also provide evidence that there is a significant impact when we rely on yellow journalism as our main source of information. The information in yellow journalism may be biased, inaccurate or fake. It can trigger violence and radicalization as happened in Maluku at the beginning of the reform era (retrieved 21 April 2010, available from: http://danankphoenix.wordpress.com/2010/04/15/jurnalisme-kuning/). It is even worse in Indonesia because Indonesian yellow journalism disregards ethics. It uses sensational symbols, hyperbolic titles and nasty words without considering the effect they might cause, especially on women and children. Thus, if we consistently read yellow journalism and use it as our main preference, sooner or later, we will be part of the hyperbole and ‘nasty’ society.
Dealing with Yellow Journalism
Facing this inconvenient truth, we do need some solutions to solve the crisis. In my opinion, there is no better way other than creating a well-informed and well-educated society in Indonesia. We can implement some methods from Danny Schechter (2007: 95), who states that there are four methods to solve the journalism problems in Indonesia. These methods include the law enforcement to avoid media monopoly, the provision of free wireless networks, limitation to advertisements and media education at schools.
The first method is needed to guarantee the diversity of content and diversity of ownership. The second method is required to give more access to people so they will not depend on one source only. The third method aims to prevent information from becoming an industrial commodity and the last method is needed to give more ability among people to be highly literate. By applying these methods, I believe that we can be more skeptical when we interact with media. We can define which sources are reliable and which are not. In short, we can behave intelligently.
Finally, yellow journalism is a ‘bitter’ fact in Indonesia. The main aim of journalism is to give objective information to people, not to give them inaccurate information that might cause misunderstanding. However, if yellow journalism’s style has already emerged in the very heart of our newspapers and we cannot eliminate it, at least we can act wisely when coping with yellow journalism. Hence, we can avoid any negative effect that might be caused by this kind of journalism.