The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic

BBC News Magazine:

Mass panic and hysteria swept the United States on the eve of Halloween in 1938, when an all-too-realistic radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds sent untold thousands of people into the streets or heading for the hills.

The radio show was so terrifying in its accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays that it is remembered like no other radio programme.

The reality:

Most newspapers printed dispatches sent by wire services such as the Associated Press, which extrapolated widespread fear from small numbers of scattered, anecdotal accounts.

Newspapers, moreover, reported no deaths or serious injuries related to The War of the Worlds broadcast: had panic and hysteria seized America that night, the mayhem surely would have caused many deaths and injuries.

For newspapers, the so-called “panic broadcast” brought newspapers an exceptional opportunity to censure radio, a still-new medium that was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising.

The myth of mass panics seems to underlie a lot of bad policy-making. Remember the overreaction to Katrina? So it’s pretty unsurprising that the oft-told tale of mass panic during Orson Welles’ broadcast turns out to be completely false. People are more resilient than paternalists give them credit for.

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