On Halloween eve in 1938, there was an adaptation of H.G. Well’s 1898 novel “War of the Worlds” on the radio series “Mercury Theatre of the Air”. Orson Welles produced, hosted, and acted in this series, which adapted mystery, science fiction and other drama for radio. Welles aired the 1898 Martian invasion novel (War of the Worlds) in the style of a radio news program. For people who missed the opening disclaimer, the program sounded like a real news report!
The production was scripted in the form of fake news flashes that repeatedly interrupted musical recordings. The first news flash reported strange activity sighted on Mars. The next interruption was an urgent message saying a meteor had crashed near Grover’s Mills, New Jersey. Then came a “live” report from the New Jersey site saying it wasn’t a meteor at all but Martians with death-ray guns who had just killed one thousand people. Remember, all of this was scripted and it was an adaptation of an earlier novel. The Mercury Theatre of the Air regularly adapted novels to perform for this radio program.
Even though there had been a strong disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast saying the story was only make-believe, there were some real consequences. The radio play was misinterpreted by some to be an actual news story. People crowded into churches, highways became jam-packed with cars, and many people put on gas masks. In one unlucky town in Washington State, an actual power failure magnified the frenzy and horror. Thousands of people, believing they were under attack by Martians, flooded newspaper offices and radio and police stations with calls, asking how to flee their city or how they should protect themselves from “gas raids.” Scores of adults reportedly required medical treatment for shock and hysteria. There were even reports of people committing suicide out of fear of the Martians invading New Jersey.
After listening to a part of the broadcast (see below), answer the following questions.
For this assignment, listen to about 15 minutes of the broadcast War of the Worlds. (Pay attention to the first 11 seconds, from the beginning to 0:11 – when it is introduced as a show. Listeners who missed the introduction and disclaimer that this was a broadcast based on a novel were more likely to believe this was true.)
What skills are involved in being a radio listener? In other words, how is ‘reading’ or interpreting the radio program different from ‘reading’ a television program?” Discuss the differences.
Comment on what elements would have been familiar to the listeners and what elements contributed to the panic.
Were these people media illiterate? Or did the Mercury Theatre broadcast play against people’s media literacy? (That is, you had to know something of the conventions to make it “real.”) (The National Geographic article discusses this a bit).
Have you ever been fooled by a fake news report? What tools and strategies did the media producers use? How are they similar to and different from the tools and strategies Welles used?
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