Little green men?

Mount professor explains the link between ‘War of the Worlds’ and media distrust
October 27, 2017

Eric Langstedt, associate professor of communications at Mount Saint Mary College, discussed The War of the Worlds and media distrust on Monday, October 23.


According to Eric Langstedt, associate professor of communications at Mount Saint Mary College, about six million listeners tuned in for Orson Welles’ radio drama The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938 – and about one million of them thought they were listening to a real news broadcast. 

Could it be that The War of The Worlds planted the seeds for today’s allegations of “fake news?” The short, simple answer, said Langstedt, is no.

In his recent Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) talk, Langstedt noted that “There was media distrust before 1938. It didn’t flick on like a switch.”

Yellow journalism – that is, exaggerations and fabrications in news media – existed long before 1938, said Langstedt. But there was plenty about The War of the Worlds that made it so compelling and earned it a place in broadcast history. 

The story of The War of the Worlds was about 40 years old by the time Welles’ radio play was broadcast, and it was assumed that people would be familiar with the well-known story, Langstedt said. 

However, the radio presentation emulated real broadcast, beginning with music but cutting to breaking news bulletins to tell the story of an alien invasion in a small New Jersey community. That lent it some authenticity, he said. 

Despite that The War of the Worlds was broadcast the day before Halloween and listeners were reminded that it was a work of fiction at the start and about halfway through the program, some people began forming militias and attempting to hunt down the alien threat. 

“What I find most remarkable about this is that people professed to have seen things during this time,” said Langstedt. “Your mind can play ticks on you. Some people swore they saw aliens.”

Contrary to persistent rumors, there were no fatalities attributed to the confusion generated by The War of the Worlds, he added. 

As for today’s media distrust, one of the biggest contributing factors, said Langstedt, is the proliferation of misinformation being distributed digitally. From satire articles copied and presented as news by careless media outlets to fake articles spreading through social media platforms and being taken at face value, Pew Research Center polls suggest that a majority of Americans – about 75 percent – have a distrust of media sources.

So while The War of the Worlds might have played a small part in the current media climate, the real culprit comes not from the stars, but from right here on Earth. 

The goal of the college’s iROC is to “provide a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with both Mount Saint Mary College and the local community in a manner easily understood by attendees,” explained series coordinators Evan Merkhofer, assistant professor of biology, and Jennifer Park, assistant librarian for access and outreach services. Presentations include research proposals, initial data collection, and completed research projects.

The next iROC talk, “Social Media and the Impact on Law and Business,” will be presented by Michael L. Fox, assistant professor of business law and pre-law advisor, on Thursday, November 2 at 12:45 p.m. It will take place in the Kaplan Family Library and Learning Center at the Mount, 330 Powell Ave., Newburgh. It is free and open to the public.

Mount Saint Mary College is ranked a Top-Tier University by U.S. News & World Report, and offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for careers in healthcare, business, education, social services, communications, media, and the liberal arts.