Use “War of the Worlds” to Teach Media Literacy

Orson Welles

Orson Welles (Associated Press)

By: Amanda Hendrey, Newseum Education Intern

Imagine turning on your radio one normal Sunday night and hearing an announcer exclaim: “Ladies and gentleman, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed! … Those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army.”  That is exactly what happened to the unsuspecting listeners of the CBS “Mercury Theatre on the Air” radio program on Oct. 30, 1938. The result: mass panic across the nation. Many New Jersey listeners fled their homes, trying to escape the invading aliens.

In 1938, there were two main radio shows that competed for listeners during the prime 8 p.m. Sunday time slot: Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre on the Air” and “Chase and Sanborn Hour.”  Welles wanted to pull listeners from his competition so he turned to his theater background for the Halloween show.  He worked with the CBS staff to adapt H.G. Wells’ novel “War of the Worlds” for radio, updating the setting and shortening the plot.

At the beginning of the show, Orson Welles announced that the following broadcast would be an adaption of the novel. However, most listeners tuned into “Mercury Theatre on the Air” during the musical break of “Chase and Sanborn Hour.” They missed the announcement and only heard the terrifying breaking news bulletins of “eye witness accounts” of creatures with heat ray weapons and interviews with “government experts” describing mass destruction.  These reports, combined with the sounds of clanking metal and a screaming crowd, made the experience extremely realistic—and upsetting—for listeners.

Within hours, though, listeners realized the report was fictitious and were outraged. Many tried to sue the radio station, but no law had been broken.  It was a hard lesson in not believing everything they heard on the radio.

For the classroom

While listening to the broadcast, use the consumer’s questions to analyze “War of the Worlds:”

  • Who made this?
  • Why was this made?
  • How does this get my attention?
  • When was this made?
  • What is this missing?
  • Where do I go from here?

Questions for further discussion:

  • Did CBS have an ethical obligation to consider potential distress to listeners before broadcasting “War of the Worlds?” Why or why not?
  • What tools and strategies did Welles’ use to making the “news report” realistic?
  • 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 Wells used?

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