Monday, April 8, 2019

Case study in fake news

I find the story about Orson Welles’ 1938 radio production of the War of the Worlds and its impact on many Americans who had tuned into their favourite radio program, utterly fascinating.

On October 30th, 1938 (Halloween Eve or Mischief Night) the American public were about to get punked big time.  The story goes, that Orson Welles and the players of the Mercury Theater had adapted the novel by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, into a radio play.  The play was presented as if it was taking place in ‘real time’ with credible sounding newscasters describing the unfolding invasion of aliens in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Many of the listening audience thought the story was true and panicked, thinking they were about to be captured or killed by Martians.  Police were called, hospitals were overrun, switchboards at CBS and other media were swamped with calls, and people were running amok in the streets. The story goes viral.  Fascinating, right?

Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the World Sparked the1938 Invasion of America by Gail Jarrow presents an absorbing account of how this all came to be, played out in reality and the aftermath.  It is a well-researched book that frames the context of the radio play in terms of the mindset of the American people at this time (post-Depression era, increasing unease over the rise of Nazism in Europe, increasing interest in Mars) and why it was seemingly, possible to dupe the public.
Fake news, anyone?

That’s right.  Fake news.

But the book goes beyond looking at the radio play and its unintended consequences. It also explores the characters involved in the production, the public’s response and it looks at the media’s coverage of the aftermath, presenting another angle of fake news.  The mass hysteria that supposedly gripped the nation after the play’s broadcast was greatly exaggerated. The studies done at the time are shown to be inaccurate and then wrongly reported.

This book presents a terrific historical case study to bring into the classroom to look at fake news today, understanding how the media can slant a story and the importance of critical thinking.

The book includes sections of the radio broadcast, descriptions of how the play was read, the pacing, the music, the characters, as well as excerpts from letters, telegrams and editorials sent to CBS, Orson Welles, newspapers describing the impact it had on listeners. The breakdown of the myth of mass hysteria shows how to work through information and fact check.

Additional material such as a timeline, a list of web resources, an author’s note, source notes, a selected bibliography and an index provides substantial support for students to follow up and explore the story on their own. You’ll be happy to know that there is a link to a site that has the original radio play for you to listen to.

Gail Jarrow does an amazing job with all her books.  As already mentioned, they are well-researched.  She picks stories that allow us to connect on an emotional level to the people involved and then gets us thinking.

I highly recommend this book for middle grades and up.

Reviews for other books by Gail Jarrow: 


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