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Eighty years ago this week, CBS broadcast Orson Welles's adaptation of "War of the Worlds," and mass panic ensued.

Or did it?

We know today that the popular story of the mass panic sparked by "War of the Worlds," a radio drama staged as a normal news broadcast interrupted by breaking reports of an alien invasion, was far overblown. In a nation of about 130 million people, a generous reading would conclude that fewer than 50 Americans were panicked enough by the broadcast to flee outside. That number emerges from recent scholarship by historian A. Brad Schwartz and others who've explored the scope of the panic in the past decade. And of that small number, nobody can be certain how many people were spooked by anxious telephone calls from friends and family rather than the broadcast.

But the myth that thousands--and as many as 1 million--mobbed the streets remains powerful. Sensationalist journalism at the time was later validated by social scientists and relayed by historians, creating a well-sourced myth that just won't die. Efforts to debunk this myth reveal that fake news doesn't just distort the historical record but also often spreads damaging racial and gendered stereotypes.

Newspapers that reported on the panic did so in ways that advanced ideas of racial inferiority. "Harlem was shaken by the 'news,' " read one largely forgotten subhead in The New York Times. In "the parlor churches in the Negro district . . . evening services became 'end of the world' prayer meetings."

The racism in these reports was often coupled with gender stereotypes. Frightened mobs of women and children made appearances in newspapers throughout America. One famous example emerged from Providence, Rhode Island, when "women in hysterical tears . . . besieged the switchboard of The Providence Journal." Reports of phantom crowds of women ("with children clinging to them") were spread widely across the syndicated wire services.

As with the mobs of frightened African Americans, none of these women were identified or quoted. Even the policemen involved apparently preferred to withhold their identities. Everyone remained nameless, obscured by anonymity.

Some newspapers, however, searched for facts, not tropes. And quite a few discovered little actual panic. "Maine Refused to Get Excited," read the headline of a piece in The Lewiston Daily Sun. Reporters called police departments in Maine's three largest cities and discovered that "only one . . . call was made to Portland's morning newspaper offices, and police signal officers escaped entirely the busy hours their mates throughout the country put in assuring the anxiety of frightened citizens." In Chicago, Salt Lake City and elsewhere, some newspapers relayed the lack of any detectable local panic.

Perhaps the most professional reporting to occur that evening came out of The Long Island Daily Press newsroom. Once the phone started ringing, reporters and editors got an idea. They decided to conduct a telephone poll of 50 people, and found only four were tuned into the broadcast but "none of them were upset." More than half of the people telephoned weren't even listening to the radio, thus confirming the findings of the C.E. Hooper nationwide ratings survey.

The Daily Press telephone survey was excellent journalism. Once alerted to a rumor, the newspaper's staff investigated its reality and reported results. Yet nobody has cited their work. It was forgotten until Tom Tryniski digitized the defunct newspaper's front page and put it on the Web, where we found it.

The lesson is clear. Both journalists and scholars need to be more self-aware and skeptical whenever sensational stories about media manipulation arise. These stories are so irresistible that they can become too-quickly enshrined as fact, told again and again as anecdote until historians eventually certify the myths as reality.


Jefferson Pooley is associate professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College. Michael Socolow teaches journalism at the University of Maine.

Editorial on 10/31/2018

Print Headline: Now this is fake news

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