Space aliens invading? But I heard it on the radio…on this day

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Do you believe what you see, read, or hear on the news? Ever fallen for an Internet hoax — a fake celebrity death or manipulated photograph? Most of us are careful, but sometimes, especially with a new technology like radio in 1938, one can be fooled.

On October 30, 1938, the night before Halloween, a radio broadcast convinced thousands of Americans that Earth was under attack by invaders from Mars. Orson Welles, who would become a famous film director, scripted a radio play from H.G. Wells’ science-fiction classic “The War of the Worlds.” The dramatization incorporated fake news bulletins reporting space aliens landing in a New Jersey town. Many listeners around the country tuned in late, missed the introduction and mistook the radio play for a real news broadcast.

Orson Welles at radio-network microphone (AP Images)
Orson Welles broadcasting “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 (AP Images)

On one street in Newark, New Jersey, more than 20 families fled their homes with wet cloths over their faces, believing they were victims of a Martian poison gas raid. Terrified citizens across America flooded police stations with calls asking how they could protect themselves.

The New York Times scolded the CBS Radio network. “Radio is new,” the paper declared, “but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”

You can listen to the broadcast and decide if you would have been fooled. But before you judge those panicked listeners, remember that in 1938, radio was people’s only real-time news source.

Modern open societies have many news sources: websites, newspapers, social media, television and— yes — radio. This variety helps citizens stay informed, and helps them separate fact from fiction. But for at least one night in America, fiction prevailed, even if the invading Martians didn’t.