The Martians Have Landed


Orson Welles; photo credit CBS

(Note: I was invited recently to speak to a class about mass media, thanks to the kindness of the instructor, Guy Le Masurier, a beloved professor at Vancouver Island University. I’m sharing the draft write-up today, on which the talk was based.)

On the eve of Halloween—81 years ago—one of the greatest urban legends was created that still affects how we view the impact of mass communication.

I will return to the urban legend but—in the meantime—I’d like to tell you about the single most myth surrounding mass communication.

Myth. What you see is what you get.

Many muggles think there is a direct, causal relationship between what is presented in mass media, and how media affect viewers, listeners and readers.

I’d like to talk to you first about the myth, and then follow through with three “truisms” we know about mass communication based on more than 80 years of research.

Truisms about media include:

  1. Newspapers have an agenda-setting effect
  2. People believe others are more likely to be affected than they are themselves (the third-person effect)
  3. Effects of mass media are complicated: they depend on many factors

Let’s go back in time.

The year is 1938.

The place in New York.

  • A loaf of bread costs 9 cents
  • Superman makes his first appearance in a comic book in June
  • The most popular radio show is the Chase & Sanborn Hour with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy-pal, Charlie McCarthy.

Another radio show—but not as popular—is the Mercury Theatre on CBS, which competes for listeners with Charlie McCarthy.

On October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theatre performed an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novelette, War of the Worlds.

Although most American were listening to Charlie McCarthy, those who tuned into the Mercury Theatre got a blow-by-blow account of Martians landing.

The star of the show was a young actor called Orson Welles, who narrated the story.

The show was presented as though it were happening in real time, as a news broadcast–interrupted by reports of extraterrestrials landing in New Jersey.

The evening broadcast of War of the Worlds would become famous for terrorizing folks living in New York and New Jersey, and cementing the myth in mass communication that What you see is what you get.

Because the theatrical broadcast was frightening, listeners mistakenly assumed mass panic seized residents of the East Coast.

The next morning, newspaper headlines exclaimed:



But had mass panic really ensued?

A group of researchers at Princeton University in New Jersey set out the next day to talk to residents about the broadcast.

They went door-to-door, interviewing folks who had listened to the broadcast.

They discovered that most people who heard the program knew it was theatre, not news.

Most listeners heard the station identification at the breaks, and caught Orson Welles’ sign-off at the end–that the show was a story adapted for radio.

Listeners who heard that the Martians’ spaceship emitted an eerie glow looked outside their windows or doors, and found nothing unusual.

The researchers did discover one thing that “believers” had in common: those who though Martians landed had a greater belief in religion than other listeners.

So why is the War of the Worlds broadcast from 1938 important today?

The urban legend continues: we still believe that the broadcast created a mass panic among residents of New York and New Jersey.

One rationale is that we believe mass media created a panic because the show was frightening.

What you hear is what you get.

And the next day, newspapers described listeners as panicked.

The agenda-setting effect.

In reality, some people thought the broadcast was real, but most listeners knew it was a Halloween story.

For more than 80 years we’ve assumed that the broadcast caused panic, and one reason is that we tend to think other muggles are susceptible to the power of the media.

The third person effect.

And, finally, how people responded depended on many factors:

  • Whether they sought confirmation of Martians landing by looking outside
  • Whether they heard the entire broadcast (which included station breaks)
  • Whether they were highly religious

I invite you to turn a critical ear to assumptions about how people think mass media is all-powerful.


2 November 2019




















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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