“The War of the Worlds” Broadcast and How Journalists Can Control Us All

Footage from Spielberg's 2005 "War of the Worlds" film starring Tom Cruise

So I got a head-start on my homework for my Media Effects class today by listening to “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which was a one-hour special conducted by Orson Welles. His name shouldn’t be confused with H.G. Wells, who wrote the original novel in 1898.

On October 30, 1938, Welles adapted The War of the Worlds for “Mercury Theatre on the Air.” He changed the setting from London to New York/New Jersey, in order to create the ultimate Halloween trick on his listeners.

In case you don’t know the plot, it describes an attack from Martians, who arrive from the red planet in metal cylinders and raise their tentacled bodies on gigantic tripods in order to destroy civilizations with their heat-rays and poisonous black gas. What makes the broadcast unique is that other than three reminders that the story was fictional, it seems like it was actually happening. Welles inserted the ‘breaking news’ between musical performances, and because the public had never heard a fictional “We interrupt this program…” they believed the news to be true.

I haven’t read the novel, but after listening to the broadcast, I can see how people were duped. There were detailed descriptions of the Martians and the attacks, interspersed with people screaming and jets roaring. They had interviews with scientific ‘experts’ to offer their opinions, but the characters of course were actors. Even though there was a happy ending (since the Martians were killed off by earth’s bacteria), you spend the majority of the time terrified of the impending¬†apocalypse.

Historians believe that over 6 million people heard the broadcast, and over a million panicked, calling their neighbors and the police. They must not have heard the end of the broadcast, in which Welles says it was just the station’s way of “dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush, and saying “BOO!” Quite a Halloween prank indeed!

As for its media effects, this event has taught us how media can manipulate messages and deceive the public, even when they tell us exactly what they’re doing. Mob mentality is even stronger when our access to information is limited, so it’s hard for us to imagine something like this happening in the world of the internet, TV, cell phones, etc. But there are many examples of people believing someone, just because she’s a doctor or he has a talk show on FOX. And since many people still believe in aliens, Area 51, and UFOs, it’s still possible to fuel the conspiracies.

I guess what I learned is to remain skeptical of all media, and never accept someone’s word at face value. Always do your research, get other opinions, and–most importantly–listen carefully! You never know when you may be getting punk’d by some crafty journalists!

4 thoughts on ““The War of the Worlds” Broadcast and How Journalists Can Control Us All

  1. I’ve always wanted to read this (and listen to the radio show!). I’ve never seen the movies, though.

    Idea: instead of doing a movie of the novel, I think it might be interesting to do a movie from the perspective of those who panicked when they heard the “breaking news” on the air. A Halloween prank gone disastrously wrong might make for a good movie!

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Ender’s Game « Book Club Babe

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