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Yellow journalism in Sri Lanka

Posted : 02:57 PM Aug 30,2018 by Rachel
Serial Number : icpfj0000154283

Yellow journalism in Sri Lanka

According to Britannica, “yellow journalism is the use of sensational headlines, rather than factual news, to capture readers’ attention”. Oxford dictionary defines yellow journalism as “type of journalism that relies on exaggeration and sensationalism in order to draw in readers”.



 According to Britannica, “yellow journalism is the use of sensational headlines, rather than factual news, to capture readers’ attention”. Oxford dictionary defines yellow journalism as “type of journalism that relies on exaggeration and sensationalism in order to draw in readers”.

Origin of yellow journalism
The term yellow journalism originated in the 1890s to describe the strategies adopted in competition between two New York City newspapers – ‘Then World’ and ‘The Journal’. Long before radio and television were invented, newspapers were the source to inform people of events, issues and other developments. To keep their sales high and attract a larger number of readers, newspaper publishers began adopting new strategies. This gave birth to what is known as yellow journalism. Publishers during the late 19th century saw in yellow journalism a great opportunity to increase their revenue.                          
The aim is to prompt or provoke the reader to choose one publication over its competitor.
In today’s context, yellow journalism can be found easily in newspapers and tabloids in almost every country.  Articles with sensational headings are often not supported by the actual content. News about events, personalities, statements and disasters is portrayed in a sensational manner and is accessible to the general public through the print, electronic, internet and social media.

 Origin of yellow journalism in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is no exception. Yellow journalism is practiced to meet the aims and aspirations of certain people, organisations and institutions. Ever since party politics took root following the country’s independence, some writers and journalists have resorted to yellow journalism to attract readers.                                                                       

In the past few decades, yellow journalism has taken a sharp upward trend, mainly due to the three-decade-long ethnic conflict and confrontational politics. Some print and electronic media outlets have been accused of resorting to sensationlism in their presentation of conflict- and politics-related news. They used this strategy to feed into the emotions and feelings of the general public.

Often words such as ‘astounding’, ‘unbelievable’ and ‘shocking’ are used in headlines to lure readers into reading these stories. In the twenty-first century, the term ‘yellow journalism’ is used negatively to describe any journalistic style that treats real news either unprofessionally or unethically, or news that puts forth information as true, though it has no basis in fact.  Often authors of these phony articles feed off terrifying or horrific stories or nonexistent scandals. Humans thrive on the thrill of knowing private or controversial things about others. Thus articles of such nature appeal to the masses. Whether or not the reading or writing of these articles affects one’s morals is completely overlooked. It almost dehumanizes one into a particular judgment.

Sri Lanka fits into the definition of a collectivist society. Collectivism is the political theory, according to which, people should be interdependent on others, conform to the same ideas and worship the goals of the group than that of the individual.”(Oxford dictionary).  In such a society, an article about a well-known figure will often go viral as we now term it. Once an individual starts reading the articles, almost instantaneously a few more individuals are introduced to the articles. The interrelated culture results in the spread of the article even if it is completely non-factual. Hence, a high increase in the audience number for yellow articles. With increasing one’s income being the motive of many in this monetary-oriented society, journalists are tempted to write convincing yellow articles. In the process, con artistes are born.

We are now in an era where yellow journalism relates not only to the entertainment industry but, in a much bigger way, also to politics with the aim being gaining political mileage and winning votes. Fabricating news or paying a tabloid or newspaper to tarnish a rival candidate’s reputation, could, more often than not, decide the outcome of an election.

Modern yellow journalism

Since the advent of the 21st century digital age, the use of yellow journalism or non factual news to grab reader attention has seen a sharp increase. (Standford Edu)      
The following are a few examples to show the use of yellow journalism:
CNN’s ‘Yellow Journalism’ Rating Hits All-Time High, states the AE911Truth as the CNN press released 9/11 Museum Brochure (AE911Truth)
Heidi Fleiss - She was convicted of prostitution and tax evasion and became very well known due to the media coverage. (Buzzfeed)
Botox mom - This story of a mom giving her daughter Botox and waxing to keep her looking young was a hoax. The Sun, a British tabloid, paid her $200 to say she did it. (Huffspot)
Octamom - A former stripper gave birth to octuplets and became a media sensation. (Huffspot)

Another more modern form of yellow journalism is ‘click bait’. Clickbait comes in the form of online adverts or pop up links. It is not uncommon for a click bait article to be paired up with a shocking image that has nothing to do with the content. The sole purpose of that image is to make people interested enough to click the link. Once readers have followed the link, they will find some non-substantive or even completely false article that is surrounded by, and teeming with, advertisements. Clickbait is often found in internet-related search from Netflix to twitter. As Sri Lanka is becoming more and more modernized, the dependency on the internet is increasing significantly. With some 6 million of the population having access to the internet, according to statistics, most Sri Lankans are likely to be drawn to a clickbait site.
A very common way of applying this practice of yellow journalism is through comics and doctored photographs.

In politics, politicians often fabricate information to vilify their rivals, giving rise to the endless use of fake news. Newspapers sometimes fall prey to political baits and come out with comics based on such fabricated stories.


Identifying yellow journalism

The issue raises questions about how one can identify a yellow article. There are many traits which we can apply to differentiate authentic and yellow articles. The late American historian and journalist Frank Luther Mott said that examples of yellow journalism can essentially be defined by the following traits:

  • “Scare” headlines printed in large type, despite the news story itself being minor
  • Generous usage of photos or drawings to accompany the story
  • The writer being overly sympathetic with the “underdog” in the story and overly against “The Man” (the system)
  • Using fabricated interviews, deceptive headlines, pseudoscience, and/or false information from so-called “experts” to pad out a story.

If we were to look for the above mentioned traits in newspaper articles, it is likely we will be able to differentiate between a factual article and a yellow article. If an individual was to look at a Sri Lankan newspaper, they would most likely be able to identify a yellow article.

Yellow journalism is not against the law. Organizations such as the Commission on Freedom of the Press, chaired by Robert M. Hutchins, issued a report in 1947. Titled ‘A Free and Responsible Press’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), the report urged the press to be “socially responsible”. However, news provided in yellow circulations is not given high news value by authorities. It is mostly considered as inflammatory and irresponsible reporting.

 Is yellow journalism against the law?

 Yellow journalism is not against the law. Organizations such as  the Commission on Freedom of the Press, chaired by Robert M. Hutchins, issued a report in 1947, A Free and Responsible Press (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947) which urged the press to be “socially responsible.”However, news provided in yellow circulations is not given high news value by authorities. It is mostly considered as inflammatory and irresponsible reporting.

 Sri Lanka and yellow journalism today.

 All of the above mentioned types of yellow journalism -- yellow journalism as a whole – has been and is very much present in Sri Lanka. From clickbait to politics, yellow journalism is prevalent in the country. The use of sensational headlines, rather than headlines based on factual news, to capture a reader’s attention is prevalent.

Examples of yellow journalism in Sri Lanka are as follows:

In June 2017, the Sri Lankan Guardian stated that “A former columnist with a Sinhala daily, Ravaya, has launched an unreasonable and lamebrain attack against the Sri Lanka Guardian and Sathhanda by running a putrid yellow piece to satisfy his demented emotional motivations.” Another (NATIONAL LIBRARY)more recent example of yellow journalism or fake news is the news that Sri Lankans can travel to the US visa free.

One time Information Director General Prof. Ariyarathne Ethugala mentions in an interview to the Sri Lankan Brief said: “Sri Lankan media is presently dominated by sensational news reporting, owing to the harsh competition…. and consequently provincial journalists are constantly persuaded by the media institutions in rousing news coverage which in turn generates an unhealthy public mentality filled with shock and fright.”

Often in Sri Lanka the mentality of the people is governed by the misconceptions provided to them by the media, which then shape the decisions and attitude one has towards a particular person or situation. Through the use of yellow news, often the people’s minds are manipulated to think in a particular way or make them behave in a way, which the authority who is often funding the journalists want them to. They manipulate minds to conform to these thoughts to influence the masses. The idea that ‘if you are not with me you are against me’ governs the nation.  The population is led to believe that all news even though it is mudslinging and character assassinating is absolutely true. Although Sri Lanka has a very high literacy rate, illiterate reading, where individuals are unaware of the particular topic, are blinding and restricting them to the content of the yellow article.

However it must be mentioned that there are some elements of truth in yellow articles though they may not be factual and may also result in investigation into fields which initially was deemed unimportant to authorities. Also yellow journalism is the remedy for fake news which completely condemns the truth. One major factor which appeals to most audiences is the length of a yellow article. Often ‘clickbait articles are short in length and thus less time-consuming. Not all readers require an in depth informative article. The most common type of yellow journalists are freelance writers.  Often in Sri Lanka, to gather information to write a proper informative article, it is quite difficult because often the truth will affect high authoritative figures, who are rather corrupt and will ensure there is no access to the related documents. In some instances, journalists have been mysteriously killed for publishing or inquiring into certain matters.

Impact of yellow journalism on society.

Another very unethical aspect of yellow journalism is fabricated news related to celebrities. More often than not, especially in a country like Sri Lanka, the celebrity is scorned or looked down upon even after proven innocent, regardless of the fact that it tarnishes one’s career. An example of a yellow article relating to the entertainment industry is the story which screamed in its headline ‘Did Mr Bean actually die?’ Another was a story which claimed to reveal the secrets of well-known Sri Lankan actress Shalini Tharaka. (gossip lanka news).

If newspapers in Sri Lanka were to publish a story about a missing person, often it is sensationalized with facts being exaggerated in order to achieve the hidden objective of attracting more readers, but they fail to realize that it also hurts the family members of the victim. The practice is becoming part of the media culture, irrespective of the negative repercussions.

Among the negative effects of yellow journalism is the emergence of a culture of sensationalism, a change in social, political, and economic life, as well as a distorted mass media. Other negative impacts are gender discrimination, increased violence, and human security issues. All of this has impacted Sri Lanka. The recent Kandy riots were also a result of spreading yellow news. It created wide-spread panic and a toxic atmosphere amongst ethnic groups. However, the truth was soon brought to light, despite certain social media spreading fake news.

 Is anyone really taking action?

One may wonder whether there are government measures to stifle the spreading of fake news. Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala.Sirisena has initiated the measures needed to control and/or eradicate fake news. According to a state-controlled Sinhala daily, President Sirisena directed Inspector General of Police Pujitha Jayasundara to conduct an investigation to find out who was behind the story published in two Sinhala newspapers which said that the government was concerned about a threat to national security. 

The government is discussing setting up an institution to monitor social media usage, a newspaper quoted Digital Infrastructure Technology Minister Harin Fernando as saying. He said this measure would be aimed at preventing posts which provoke hate against any community or religion.

If these measures are properly implemented it could result in the reduction of fake news through yellow journalism. However, these approaches may not affect yellow journalism as a whole and may only affect some articles, as not all yellow articles are fake news even though they may lack factual back up.

Although there is freedom of speech one must be responsible in the way he or she uses this freedom. Sri Lankan media is in need of a major transformation to create a factual news culture prominent and eliminate yellow journalism. However, there are huge challenges to face, as the motivator for this type of journalism relies on exaggeration and sensationalism in order to draw in readers -- and their objective still remains the same as it was in the late 19th century -- increased revenue. Another factor which may not allow this to take place is the restricted access available to the truth. In an industry thriving through feeding of emotions one must truly rethink their humanity when in both writing and reading any given article.


 Sources-Sri Lanka brief,Sri Lankan Guardian,Daily News,Britiannica,Huffpost,Jstor Daily ,AE911Truth,,Buzzfeed,Standford Edu

Ms. Rachel Silva