The myth carried on for over 80 years, but that's all it ever really was. A myth.
The story about mass panic hitting the streets of America following a 1938 radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds was itself fiction, just like the Orson Welles radio play. In the age of Donald Trump and "Fake News", the way the myth spread throughout the country is very relevant today. Based on media reports, the fake news about a mass panic spread further and wider than any panic the radio play itself might have generated.
Despite a majority of Americans not actually hearing the radio play or ever tuning in to listen to it, media reports across the country picked up on a single report that claimed people had begun to panic and flee their homes and cities after believing that War Of The Worlds was really happening. To the contrary, no panic ever really happened and the broadcast contained several disclaimers throughout reminding listeners that it was only fiction. Not only did the Orson Welles broadcast contain a disclaimer at the very beginning and end, it contained periodic interruptions throughout that reminded listeners that none of it was really happening.
Like a wildfire, rumours of people jumping off buildings, fleeing in vehicles and rushing into the streets spread from journalist to journalist and one of America's first confirmed cases of fake news was born.
According to the Telegraph:
In the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, analysts in Princeton’s Office of Radio Research, working under the direction of Professor Hadley Cantril, sought to verify a rumour that several people had been treated for shock at St Michael’s Hospital in Newark, NJ after the programme. The rumour was found to be false. In addition, when they surveyed six New York City hospitals in December 1938, they found that “none of them had any record of any cases brought in specifically on account of the broadcast”. A Washington Post claim that a man died of a heart attack brought on by listening to the programme was never verified. Police records for New Jersey did show an increase in calls on the night of the show. However, in the preface to his textbook Introduction to Collective Behaviour, academic David Miller points out that: "Some people called to find out where they could go to donate blood. Some callers were simply angry that such a realistic show was allowed on the air, while others called CBS to congratulate Mercury Theatre for the exciting Halloween programme".
Not only were reports of panic highly exaggerated, ratings for the radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds were exaggerated as well. In truth, more Americans tuned into a comedy show called the Chase And Sanborn Hour.
A telephone poll conducted by CE Hopper Company on the night of the Welles broadcast confirmed that only 2% of Americans had tuned into War Of The Worlds.
As reported by the Telegraph, the myth about mass panic was spread by newspapers at the time:
Newspaper headlines about the event were lurid. 'Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact' was the front page headline on The New York Times. 'Radio Fake Scares Nation', said the Chicago Herald and Examiner. 'US Terrorised By Radio's Men From Mars' said the San Francisco Chronicle. There were also front page stories in the The Boston Daily Globe and The Detroit News. One repeated claim was that within a month, 12,500 articles had been published throughout the world on the alien mass panic. Yet in his comprehensive analysis of contemporaneous reporting in a book called Getting it Wrong, American University professor W Joseph Campbell found that almost all newspapers swiftly dropped the story. “Coverage of the broadcast faded quickly from the front pages, in most cases after just a day or two," he wrote.
So there you have it folks. The mass panic you've been told about from 1938, caused by War Of The Worlds, was nothing more than fake news.
November 2017 | Commodus
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