Public Panic and the Media


In 1938, the famous radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds aired to what? Widespread panic from a duped public? That’s the popular version of the story, but this article from Slate says it isn’t true. Newspapers of the day reported panic, and people have continued to use those articles to perpetuate the story, but Jeffrey Pooley and Michael J Socolow claim in their article that the evidence just doesn’t back up the story of public panic to any significant degree.

Still, we continue to to be told just that. History.com says that the broadcast did cause a nationwide panic, and National Geographic acknowledges the scholarly skepticism on this topic, but still assumes that there was a measurable degree of panic.

An interesting research project might be to follow the leads and try to find out for yourself what really happened in terms of public reaction to the Welles broadcast.

What happened, and what does it mean? What does it tell us about the influence of the media on public perception? What does it tell us about how we distinguish fact from opinion from legend in what we pass down as history?

If the skeptic’s version of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast story is true, the newspapers of the day created a sensationalized account where none existed, and not only passed it off as legitimate news, but also passed it down as true history.

We don’t have to go far to look for more recent examples of the media inventing sensations and reporting them as legitimate news.

For example, let’s take a look at Jon Stewart’s criticism of news media outlets for their Ebola coverage (PG-13 alert for inappropriate but totally to-be-expected jokes. If you are listening in the school library, or an office, or someone’s classroom, use headphones):

In the Slate account of a sensationalized level of panic being falsely reported at the time of the Welles broadcast, it’s explained that the newspapers themselves had an agenda, that they had something to be gained in making trouble for the competitors in radio broadcasting.

The news outlets of today obviously have something to be gained by sensationalizing the news: ratings. In the case of the Ebola coverage, however, they basically did create public panic by reporting the story in a manner that exaggerated the need for panic.

Watch for ways in which the news media basically cries wolf for the sake of rating rather than reporting the facts in proper perspective. What are the ethics of this? What is the psychology of this? Why do people not only tolerate sensationalism in the news but foster it by continuing to jump from one panic-stricken bandwagon to the next? What is the impact of this kind of sensationalism on our society? How has media propaganda historically shaped our society?

If nothing else, these are good places for student researchers to start sorting through our collective love affair with being frightened by threats real and imagined.

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