W. Joseph Campbell

‘War of the Worlds’ radio panic was overstated

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 3, 2010 at 8:02 am

Welles in bronze

October always brings frequent reminders about radio’s most memorable and myth-beclouded program–Orson Welles’ superb dramatization of the War of the Worlds that aired on Halloween eve 1938.

So realistic was Welles’ show, so alarming were its simulated news reports of invading Martians, that listeners by the tens of thousands—or more—were convulsed in panic and hysteria.

Fright beyond measure gripped the country that night; it was the night that panicked America.

Or so the media myth has it.

The delicious, ever-appealing tale of mass hysteria sown by the War of the Worlds program is one of the 10 prominent media-driven myths that I address and debunk in my new book, Getting It Wrong.

I note that some Americans were frightened by the program. But most listeners, in overwhelming numbers, were not. They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining radio show that aired in its usual Sunday evening time slot.

Still, this media myth is just too well-known, too entrenched in the American consciousness, ever to fall into disuse.

That’s why October brings numerous references to the War of the Worlds show and the panic it supposedly caused. Indeed, just the other day, an item posted at examiner.com said the program fooled “over a million people into thinking the world was actually under attack by Martians.”

But there’s simply no data to support such claims.

Hadley Cantril, a psychologist at Princeton University who helped promote the notion that the Welles’ program caused widespread panic, drew on surveys to estimate that at least 6 million people listened to the hour-long program, which aired live over the CBS radio network.

Of those listeners, Cantril estimated, 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard.

But as I note in Getting It Wrong, “Cantril left unclear the distinctions among ‘frightened,’ ‘disturbed,’ or ‘excited.’ Nor did Cantril not estimate how many listeners acted on their fears and excitement,” a critical element had there indeed been widespread panic that night.

I further note that “one can watch a horror movie and feel ‘frightened,’ ‘disturbed,’ or ‘excited,’ but such responses are hardly synonymous with panic or hysteria.” Far from it.

The notion that mass panic had accompanied the airing the War of the Worlds program spread quickly, mostly by U.S. newspapers which reported the day after the show that hysteria had swept the country.

Their reports, however, “were almost entirely anecdotal,” I note, “and largely based on sketchy wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

Newspapers simply had no reliable way of testing or ascertaining the validity of the sweeping claims they made about the War of the Worlds program.

Here’s why.

The War of the Worlds dramatization aired from 8-9 on Sunday night in the East, a time when most newspaper newsrooms were thinly staffed.

Reporting on the reactions to The War of The Worlds broadcast represented no small challenge, especially for morning newspapers having late-night deadlines.

“Given the constraints of time and staffing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “relying on wire services such as the Associated Press became essential. This dependency, in turn, had the effect of promoting and deepening the notion that panic was widespread that night: On a late-breaking story of uncertain dimension and severity, many newspapers took their lead from wire service dispatches.

“They had little choice.”

The AP’s reports about the program essentially were roundups of reactions culled from the agency’s bureaus across the country, I write. Typically, AP roundups emphasized sweep—pithy anecdotal reports from many places—over depth and detail.

The anecdotes about people frightened by the show tended to be sketchy, shallow, and small-bore. But their scope contributed to and confirmed the sense that widespread panic was afoot that night.

The reliance on wire service roundups helps explain the consensus among U.S. newspapers that the broadcast had created mass panic.

Interestingly, newspaper content also helps to undercut the notion that panic and hysteria  swept the country that night.  Had that happened, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports were notably silent on extensive casualties.

No deaths were attributed to the War of the Worlds broadcast. And as Michael J. Socolow wrote in his fine essay about the program, no suicides could “be traced to the broadcast,” either.


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