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Yellow journalism

The Supreme Court recently expressed concern over the “rise of yellow journalism”. It said that yellow journalism was damaging institutions and maligning people. It added that the issue needed to be examined. It said freedom of press was supreme but it could not be one-way traffic. This remark came from a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, M R Shah and B R Gavai while hearing an appeal filed by news portal ‘The Wire’ and its journalists who are facing a defamation suit filed by Jay Shah, son of home minister Amit Shah. There is a rule known as the “newspaper rule”. This has been applied in India. The Courts have no doubt an inherent wish to respect the confidentiality of information between a journalist and his sources. The journalists and the information media have no privilege protecting them from the obligation to disclose their sources of information if such disclosure is required by the Court in the interest of justice.

I start the point by quoting Frank C. Newman and Karel Vasak in their article on 'Civil and Political Rights' in the International Dimensions of Human Rights (Edited by Karel Vasak) Vol. I state at pages 155-156 thus:

53. The media should contribute to promoting the just cause of peoples struggling for freedom and independence and their right to live in peace and equality without foreign interference. This is especially important for all oppressed peoples who, while struggling against colonialism, religious and racial discrimination, are deprived of opportunity to make their voices heard within their own countries.

54. Communication needs in a democratic society should be met by the extension of specific rights such as the right to be informed, the right to infrom, the right to privacy, the right to practicipate in public communication-all elements of a new concept, the right to communicate. In developing what might be called a new era of social rights we suggest all the implications of the right to communicate to further explored.”

In the case of Indian Express Newspapers vs Union Of India & Ors on 6 December, 19841) it was held that Newspaper industry enjoys two of the fundamental rights, namely the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 (l) (a) and the freedom to engage in any profession, occupation, trade, industry or business guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, the first because it is concerned with the field of expression and communication and the second because communication has become an occupation or profession and because there is on invasion of trade, business and industry into that field where freedom of expression is being exercised. While there can be no tax on the right to exercise freedom of expression, tax is leviable on profession, occupations trade, business and industry. Hence tax is leviable on newspaper industry. But when such tax transgresses into the field of freedom of expression and stifles that freedom, it becomes unconstitutional. As long as it is within reasonable limits and does not impede freedom of expression it will not be contravening the limitations of Article 19 (2). The delicate task of determining when it crosses from the area of profession, occupation, trade, business or industry into the area of freedom of expression and interferes with that freedom is entrusted to the courts. The Apex Court held that unless it is not a yellow journalism, freedom cannot be curtailed by levying damages. The Apex Court again in Express Newspapers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India held that right to privacy and right to freedom are to be balanced.

The election to the Kerala Legislative Assembly was held on May 10, 2001. From the Constituency, i.e., No. 106 Kallooppara Constituency, the appellant, i.e., Joseph M. Puthussery, the respondent No. 1, i.e., Advocate T.S. John, Prof. P.K. Rajasekharan Nair, i.e., the respondent No. 2 and Mathew Pinakkulath Padinjaremannil, i.e., the respondent No.3, contested the election. The result of the election was declared on May 13, 2001. The appellant was declared elected. On June 27, 2001, the respondent No. 1 filed Election Petition No. 6 of 2001 in the High Court of Kerala at Ernakulam, under Section 100(1)(b) of the Act assailing the election of the appellant. The matter went to the Supreme Court. The reference to “Crime” magazine as a yellow journal is held not proper.

The term “yellow journal” has its origins in American slang. It was initially used by some people to describe a newspaper called the “New York World” in the early 1900s because the paper used to print sensational stories and had a cartoon strip called the “yellow kid” which was printed with yellow ink.

Black's Law Dictionary (6th Edition) defines “yellow journalism” as follows: -“type of journalism which distorts and exploits the news by sensationalism in order to sell copies of the newspapers or magazines.”

In view of the fundamental mistake committed by the High Court in the matter of standard of proof while resolving dispute of corrupt practice and faulty appreciation of evidence by applying wrong standard of proof, the impugned judgment was set aside. Joseph M. Puthussery Versus T.S. John & Ors.2)

Journalism: It is a discipline of gathering, writing and reporting news. It includes the process of editing and presenting the news articles. Journalism applies to various media, including but not limited to newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. According to the Chambers dictionary, journalism is defined as “a profession of collecting, writing, publishing etc. news reports and other articles for newspapers and journals, television and other related media'.

Yellow Journalism: Journalism now has ceased to be as simplistic. Now it does not state the truth. Its intention is not now for making people aware of “meaningful” changes around us. It focuses on presenting an aggrandized and perverted version of the most inane and inconsequential events. Journalism which stoops down to the level of scandal-mongering, sensationalism, jingoism or other unethical or unprofessional practices by news media organizations or journalists is called yellow journalism.

Effect of Yellow journalism

Yellow journalism has become rampant. Impartial and analytical reporting is being overshadowed by a flamboyant and irresponsible approach to news presentation. The 'yellow press' overrides now the more honest, truthful, unbiased newspapers.

History of development of Yellow journalism

In the late 19th century, the New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer and The New York Journal, run by William Randolph Hearst became synonymous to yellow journalism. It was with the onset of the rapid industrialization that yellow journalism took birth. Yellow journalism highlights Mallika Sherawat's half clad dance on New Years Eve. It presents superstitious notions of communities thriving for three minutes of fame or screening the catfight of a professor's wife and his love interest. Yellow journalism is the curse of the day. Journalists especially newspaper reporters, come pretty low in the public's estimation. Time reached to such extent that 75% of adults would not trust a journalist to tell them the truth. Describing it as a 'defining moment in British Journalism', the journalist Ian Hargreaves, in his recent book Journalism: Truth or Dare?, notes that her car had been chased through a Paris underpass by freelance photographers working for British and other newspapers, leading the princess's brother at her funeral, to accuse publishers of having 'blood on their hands'. This is the level at which the press can stoop in order to sell a few extra copies of its edition. The media has crossed its boundaries to the extent of victimizing and being judgmental of the youth today. In the rat race of competing with their contemporaries, the delusional younger generation falls prey to the tactics of the media. The recent MMS scandal of a 17 year old, from a renowned school of Delhi, which was blown out of proportion by our “responsible” news-hunters, forced not only the principal to throw her out of the school but also made it unfeasible for her to stay in India. Not even a single detail of the event was hidden, including names and details of those involved, which left permanent scars on her character making it impossible for her to face society. This instance along with innumerable others, stand for an explicit invasion of the law of privacy. It is because of the media and the unbridled growth of yellow journalism that the private life of an individual has come in the public domain. Moreover in the Internet age, information has become very accessible and is available with one click of the mouse. This is the reason why law should be a 'watchdog' to journalism and keep an eye on its procedures. Various case laws in the past are evidences, which prove the infringement of privacy by journalists.

In Kaleidoscope (India) (P) Ltd. v. Phoolan Devi, the trial Judge restrained the exhibition of the controversial film Bandit Queen both in India and abroad. The trial court reached a prima facie view that the film infringed the right to privacy of Phoolan Devi, notwithstanding that she had assigned her copyright in her writings to the film producers. The Court observed that even assuming that Phoolan Devi was a public figure whose private life was exposed to the media. Justice was rendered by preventing by intrusion of privacy into the life of the one and only Bandit Queen. Yellow journalism has not only affected and victimized the general public. It has not even spared the apex court of the nation. In the high profile case of the Booker-prize winner Arundhati Roy, blatant and unconstructive criticism of a Supreme Court decision was witnessed. The petitioner of the case was a leader. She was concerned about the alleged adverse environmental impact of the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Reservoir Dam in Gujarat. The far-reaching and tragic consequences of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from their ancestral homes would result from the submerging of vast extents of land to make up the reservoir. During the pendency of the writ petition the Court passed various orders. By one of the orders, the Court permitted to increase the height of the dam. The same was protested. Arundhati Roy, who was not a party to the proceedings, published an article entitled “The Greater Common Good” which was published in Outlook Magazine. Two judges of this Court, forming the three-judge Bench felt that the comments made by her were prima facie a misrepresentation of the proceedings of the court. It was observed that judicial process and institution cannot be permitted to be scandalized or subjected to contumacious violation in such a blatant manner it had been done by her. On the basis of the record and the conduct of the respondent, the court had no doubt in its mind that the respondent had committed the criminal contempt of the Court by scandalizing its authority with malaise intentions. The respondent was held guilty for the contempt of court punishable under Section 12 of the Contempt of Courts Act. In Rajgopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, popularly known as the “Auto Shanker” case, the Supreme Court had expressly held “the right to privacy” or the Right to be let alone is guaranteed by Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. A citizen has a right to safeguard the privacy of his own, his family, marriage, procreation, motherhood, child bearing and education among other matters. None can publish anything concerning the above matters without his consent. If he does so, he would be violating the right of the person concerned and would be liable in action for damages. Nonetheless, the court held that the State or its officials could not impose prior restraint on publication of defamatory matter. The public officials could take action only after the publication if it is found to be false.

To put the whole blame on the journalists for the deterioration of the standards of reporting would be unreasonable. The reason for the ever-rising TRP ratings of the entertainment industry are its viewers who prefer watching Rakhi Sawant basking under all the publicity courtesy her controversial kiss with Mika or the immortal Baa of one of the K serials which gives a boost to the gossip-mongers in media and giving more footage to “junk news”.


The first step to fight the augmentation of Yellow Journalism would be to cleanse our thought process and to differentiate between right and wrong.

Yellow journalism has created a hue and cry in society. The media is a very powerful and influential tool. It has a great reach throughout the country. It has the power to either 'make or break' a person. Let us be aware that the common man has the real power to decide what he wants to view and it is in his hands whether he wants to become a puppet in the hands of the star-crazy journalists.

We need to strike a balance between rights of an individual to be let alone and the fundamental right (of the press) to freedom of speech, expression and information.

About the Author

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AIR 1986 SC 515
CIVIL APPEAL NO. 5310 OF 2005 decided on December 01, 2010.