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Orison Welles’ “War of the Worlds” Broadcast and the Reasons Behind the Havoc

A short insight into the power of the media in modern society

By Graham White Date: September 13th 2011 Class: Media Studies, Ryan Burwell 1

The correlation between this experiment and the panic that was caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast about 50 years prior to the experiment. The panic that was caused by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938 was far more chaotic than any one person could have predicted. how could a panic of this magnitude be triggered by a simple radio broadcast? Why did nobody suspect that this was simply a drama? Could such an event happen in today’s day-in-age? The answers to these questions lie in the economic condition of the time. In this experiment the idea was that an authority figure would tell a participant to electrically shock a patient. and any news about an invasion or a war incurring event was already being expected by the public. The outcome of this experiment was to prove how the public obeys authority figures despite the potential ethical and moral repercussions of such actions. and people were already feeling the overwhelming sensation of hopelessness. The second contributing factor to the mass panic that was caused by Welles’ Broadcast has very much to do with public psychology and their automatic obedience to authority figures. In certain aspects though.G. they continued to do so under the council of the experimenter. the world at this point was on the brink of World War Two. was that the broadcast was masked to appear to the public as multiple emergency news bulletins. and many more factors that contributed to the believability of the broadcast. Essentially the public was primed to be set into panic as the civil and worldly circumstances were preparing them for conflict and dire news about the current economic condition. starting a nationwide panic that an alien invasion was taking place. Although the shocks were not real. which was simply a person in a lab coat with a clip board. they were simulated by an actor pretending to be shocked so it would seem real to the participant. once the reality settled into the public. A very famous experiment known as The Milgram Experiment was conducted in the 1963 by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. The broadcast unexpectedly hit the nation with an uncanny air of believability.Graham White September 13th Orison Welles’ War of the Worlds Broadcast and the Reasons Behind the Havoc In 1938 on the eve of Halloween the “Mercury Players on the Air” put a spin onto an old classic that would shock the nation. Afterwards. Also. The Great Depression was in full swing at this point. and over a period of time continue to increase the intensity if the shock. Firstly. Despite the initial questioning of the participant as to whether or not they should continue to shock the patient. there were many questions asked such as. and that the end of the world was at hand. At this point any more news that would have augmented the public’s struggle would simply push them over the edge into panic. Interviews of different specialists and authority 2|Page . originally written by H. Wells in 1898 was altered and presented on CBS radio under the direction Orson Welles. War of the Worlds. the panic was justified due to the specific circumstances under which it was presented. the fact that it was broadcasted in 1938 was a major contributing factor. the public’s acceptance of the information from authority figures.

“The medium is the message”. made to take place in the United States. even if said events included an alien invasion. although it was masked as a breaking news flash. One would think that such an introduction would hinder any panic for which the public may be primed. who was the president at the time. The fact that this was so. all the way up to and including mediums such as television. but some of the limitations that it possesses include a potential misunderstanding of a written form of information. With this being the only access to live information. positives. This phrase is addressing a far larger concept. this being proved by Stanley Milgram. due to the fact that the author’s emphasis on certain words may be lost upon a reader. Due to the fact that the public trusts such authority figures without question. The first of his theories can be concluded into a phrase coined by McLuhan. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds. and the world was under threat of an extraterrestrial assault. and internet. therefore enhancing the believability that the so called impossible was occurring. At this time the introduction of the fictional story was already masqueraded as a report of a potential alien invasion. Potential social association of such a medium may include the public view that people who read newspapers are intellectual individuals. As radio was the first instance that channel surfing in history was acknowledged. For example. radio.G. the beginning of the broadcast did mention that this was a fictional alteration of H. were included to add to the authority of the broadcast. rather than the original location in England. they were tuned into other stations. there was no way to crosscheck or verify that the information that a person was receiving was actually truthful. and even controlled the public and their opinions. and some of the repercussions of this medium might include a deemphasis on worldly events as simply reading a story about an event is far less impacting than 3|Page . the speeches that told the public that there was an alien invasion taking place were also accepted without question. Marshall McLuhan was a professor at the University of Toronto from the 1950’s to the 1970’s who taught English and Theology. and social associations or repercussions. including a mock professor from the Princeton University observatory. altered. The issue here was that the majority of the population was not listening to the underrated “Mercury Players on the Air” with Orson Welles. that the parameters of a medium have the ability to convey information with their own limitations. have informed. His theories were developed help to explain how the media. and even a speech from an actor who sounded as Franklin Roosevelt did. As many families tuned to other stations to find other entertainment they stumbled upon what seemed to be a breaking news flash describing a meteor like object crashing into Grover Mills just outside of New Jersey. The War of the Worlds broadcast. made having radio in a person’s home an essential staple. negatives. a newspaper has the ability to convey information to the public. primarily being the famed ventriloquist at the time.Graham White September 13th figures. Edgar Bergen. being the first nationwide medium of information. just as a television might be considered today. persuaded. from newspapers. making it necessary for the public to believe what they were hearing. it was also the first nationally covered live entertainment and news medium.

has led the public to be more sceptical about the information that they are receiving. mediums such as television and radio are often used in many countries as ways to spread propaganda. the close proximity to one’s neighbours and the rest of the community is represented by today’s media where a person in one country can communicate easily with someone across the globe within a matter of seconds. and is almost instantly received. Overall. This scepticism allows for the public to make more rational decisions based on a far larger accessibility to information. There is a large debate as to whether the so called “Global Village” is beneficial or detrimental to society. The question of whether or not such a panic as what happened in 1938 due to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast could happen in today’s society. radio. If for example a fictitious television show was masked to have the viewer believe that such an event as a third world war was coming to pass. the fact that there is such an abundance of information today. This “Global Village” has its benefits. they could easily enough turn to a different news station or even a different medium altogether such as the internet or the radio in the attempt to cross-check the information that they were receiving. television. Part of the reason that such a panic happened in 1938 was due to the fact that there was not as wide a coverage of news and global events. so in turn the information that the public received was accepted without much questioning as it was the only way to receive the specific information. This theory applies more to the nature of media in the present day. due to the 4|Page . due to the fact that there are so many different opinions on a single matter that are being processed through the countless mediums that society has at their disposal. have the ability to connect people from all over the world. and that events that happen all over the world can be broadcasted instantaneously to any place where there is access to the specific medium. In a village. and internet. such advances in technology also has its drawbacks. In 1938 the radio was the only way to widely broadcast news events. and convey information with the same clarity despite the physical separation. where the event creates a much more immediate and vivid reaction for the viewer.Graham White September 13th comparatively viewing it on a television. The answer is simply that this scale of nationwide panic would be impossible to attain due to the sheer number of different mediums available to the public. A single station such as CBS radio was one of a very few number of news broadcasting stations in the United States. therefore. As in any situation though. telephones. the ability to cross-check information was far more limited that it is today. The other major theory that was developed by Marshall McLuhan was the idea of the “Global Village”. for example foreign aid was made possible due to the ability to immediately broadcast tragedies across the world and gain the support of essentially anyone who wishes to help. for example riots and even extremist movements have been organized through organizations such as Facebook and Twitter. Also. but as there are both pros and cons to such a development it can be assumed that any form of media development will be used for good and evil. where such an abundance of mediums such as newspapers. In this sense the entire globe has become a village in the sense that the information that is known by everyone is the same.

Marshall McLuhan’s theories about “The medium is the message” and “The Global Village” help to explain how such an outrageous story could be accepted by the public through the use of authority figures... even this essay is an attempt to convince the reader that the author’s viewpoint is correct. The conclusion being that it could not happen due to the multitude of different mediums that are at the public’s disposal. Lastly the question of whether such a nationwide panic could occur in today’s age is answered. were caused due to the current economic and global environment. In conclusion the events which transpired in 1938 due to Orson Welles’ adaptation of War of the Worlds broadcasted on CBS radio. being on the edge of the second world war. and how today’s interconnection between people around the world through media have both its benefits and detriments. such a panic as what was achieved in 1938 would be impossible to attain with today’s more advanced media coverage. and the fact that the majority of the 30 million listeners missed the beginning introduction where it was clearly stated that this was a drama and not a real news it? 5|Page .Graham White September 13th numerous mediums that are available now to the public. the use of false authority figures to convey the stories information. It is interesting how a simple radio broadcast could spur so much debate as to the media’s true intentions.