Notes Towards Day 27 (Tues, Apr. 24): Media Effects?
Thursday's class: our final teach-in -- 5
performances in 80 minutes, so you can
take up to 15 minutes (if you need/want it...)
we'll stop discussion @ 11 today, in order to
complete the end-of-semester evaluations...
(I am the primary--and most immediate-- audience:
please write them as letters of useful advice to me....!)
relevant on-line conversation about "not learning anything...."?
(plus "doing it all"...?)
II. for today, we listened to a October 30, 1938 radio show...
what was the experience like for us?
how does the genre of radio operate on us?
do you listen to the radio? under what conditions?
(leamirella re: this show? froggies315 re: radio shows?)
Would you have fallen for Welles's broadcast?
Do you assume that many other people did? Why?
When you created your radio show on Tuesday, to what
degree did you hope/intend to "hook/hoodwink" your audience?
In what other ways did your show anticipate/diverge
from the one written and performed by Orson Welles?
Cf. Michael Socolow, "The Hyped Panic Over 'War of the Worlds.'"
The Chronicle Review 55, 9 (October 24, 2008), 16:
Frank Stanton sensed trouble. Sitting in his living room on the night of October 30,
1938, the young CBS executive tuned in to catch Orson Welles's adaptation of H.G.
Wells's War of the Worlds. The program sounded crisp and engaging -- but a bit too
realistic. Stanton grabbed his coat and headed back to CBS' headquarters on Madison
Avenue. Pushing his way through chaotic hallways jammed with reporters, police, and
network employees, he reached his desk and telephoned his friend Paul Lazarsfeld.
Stanton and the sociologist Lazarsfeld set out to measure the panic as quickly and
accurately as possible before it subsided. Their basic results would spur a remarkable
conversation that reverberates 70 years later in social psychology, media theory, federal
regulation, and other fields.
The "War of the Worlds" broadcast remains enshrined in collective memory as
a vivid illustration of the madness of crowds and the deeply invasive nature of
broadcasting. The program seemingly proved that radio could, in the memorable
words of Marshall McLuhan, turn "psyche and society into a single echo chamber."
The audience's reaction clearly illustrated the perils of modernity. At the time, it
cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists -- or incendiary demagogues --
could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation.
It remains the prime example used by media critics, journalists, and professors to
prove the power of the media.
Yet the media are not as powerful as most think, and the real story behind "The War of
the Worlds" is a bit more complex. The panic was neither as widespread nor as serious
as many have believed at the time or since.
Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the
broadcast. Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to
the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a
terrified citizenry. Ben Gross, the radio columnist of the New York Daily News, later
remembered a "lack of turmoil in front of CBS" that contrasted notably with the crowded,
chaotic scene inside the building. Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities
were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn't handle the load, but it
appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide
broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with
a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine.
So what accounts for the legend? First -- and perhaps most important --
the news media loved the story, and Welles loved the news media. The panic
became a global story literally overnight. Even the Nazis could not resist
commenting, noting the credulity of the American public. Americans certainly
appeared gullible, but they were not alone. The news media, handed a sensational
story of national scope, reported every detail (including fictional ones) about Welles,
the program, and the reaction.
Welles's greatest performance that evening wasn't in the studio; it was in a hallway,
at the improvised news conference, when he feigned a stunned, apologetic demeanor.
In reality, as Paul Heyer notes in The Medium and the Magician, Welles carefully
concealed his satisfaction with the hysteria while expressing concern over the rumors
of deaths attributed to the program. The threats of investigation coming from the
Federal Communications Commission bothered Welles, too, but they were primarily
It was the government, and its relationship to CBS, that worried Stanton. While Welles
spoke to reporters a few floors away, he and Lazarsfeld created a brief survey instrument
to gauge the significance of the panic. Without consulting his bosses, who were occupied
at the time, Stanton phoned a trusted survey organization to conduct nationwide interviews
as soon as possible. Data were compiled over the following 24 hours and immediately
forwarded to Stanton's CBS office.
Unfortunately, those data, if they still exist, are unavailable to scholars. CBS, unlike
NBC, severely restricts access to its archives. But Stanton's survey has trickled down
to us through a classic study in the emerging field of social psychology, Hadley Cantril's
The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (1940). Cantril, a Princeton
social psychologist; Stanton; and Lazarsfeld had created the Office of Radio Research,
a Rockefeller Foundation-supported project based at Princeton that can be considered
the first significant attempt to empirically analyze the effects of mass media.
Cantril's study, which remains the most enduring source for what we know about that night,
combined the CBS data, a second survey conducted six weeks later by the American
Institute of Public Opinion, and a series of detailed interviews with 135 people, of which
"over 100 were known to have been upset by the broadcast." Admitting that his interviews
did not comprise an accurate sample of either the national population or the radio audience
that evening, Cantril nevertheless filled his short volume with narratives of terror and fear.
The interview subjects -- all from New Jersey "for reasons of finance and supervision" --
were found by the "personal inquiry and initiative of the interviewers" hired by Cantril.
They were a self-reporting, self-selected cohort. Cantril did attempt to interview people
identified in newspapers as frightened, but that effort proved almost entirely futile.
Such reliance on qualitative measures, while using an unrepresentative sample, only
begins to hint at Cantril's methodological problems. Cantril's estimates of how many
people actually heard the broadcast, and how many were frightened, are wildly imprecise.
Because CBS's Mercury Theatre on the Air lacked sponsorship, the C.E. Hooper Company,
the commercial ratings service used at the time, did not rate Welles's program. The American
Institute of Public Opinion national survey (taken six weeks after the program, following an
avalanche of publicity) found 12 percent of respondents claiming they had heard the
broadcast. That represents an audience of almost 12 million Americans -- a number that
is certainly far too high. Slightly less than four million Americans had tuned into Welles's
Mercury Theatre on the Air the week before "The War of the Worlds."
From such disparate approximations Cantril offered the "conservative estimate" that six
million Americans heard the broadcast. The public-opinion institute's survey found that 28
percent of the listeners believed the broadcast contained real news bulletins, and of that 28
percent about 70 percent were "frightened or disturbed." These numbers undercut several
of Cantril's assertions about the scope of the panic; they reveal that about three out of four
listeners knew the program was fiction. So Cantril did what many social scientists faced
with disagreeable data do: He spun the numbers. The low numbers, he wrote, represent
the "very minimum of the total number actually frightened" because "many persons were
probably too ashamed of their gullibility to confess it in a cursory interview." He candidly
admitted that "there is the possibility that some people heard so much about the broadcast
that they reported actually hearing it."
In other words, Cantril concluded that many respondents probably lied.
Cantril's assertions about the data are largely forgotten. His book is cited far
more for its tales of panic than for its faulty statistical analysis or sampling
anomalies. His study survives because it supplies what many scholars and
journalists need: academic proof for what they think they already know. It
legitimized the myth of the night of terror as perhaps nothing else could.
Neither Stanton nor Lazarsfeld was satisfied with Cantril's work. On the personal
level, Cantril and Lazarsfeld did not get along. One was a Harvard-trained WASP
with the social connections needed to land a prestigious post at Princeton; the other
was a thickly accented, chain-smoking, Jewish refugee from Vienna trained at the
intersection of economics, mathematics, and applied psychology. Nor did it help
that Lazarsfeld once made a pass at Cantril's wife, a piece of information Stanton
relayed to me in an interview.
A few years after the publication of Cantril's book, Stanton and Lazarsfeld excoriated
their colleague in confidential interviews with Rockefeller Foundation officials. Stanton
told an interviewer that Cantril's original manuscript was "completely unsatisfactory,"
and he admitted he had "no respect for Cantril's scholarly standards." Lazarsfeld was
even more brutal, telling the interviewer that some of Cantril's conclusions were "laughable."
Because Cantril was "pathologically ambitious," according to Lazarsfeld, he was "a highly
dangerous influence in the field." Stanton told the foundation officials that he and Lazarsfeld
essentially rewrote the manuscript and allowed it to be published under Cantril's name.
That explains why some of the book's less-emphasized conclusions foreshadowed
important findings about the power of the media. The hypodermic model of media
effects, which prevailed at the time, posited that the media injected ideas, more or
less directly, into the consciousness of the audience. The book's data seriously
undermined that model, demonstrating empirically that each member of the mass
audience filters the media's messages through a matrix of personal variables
(education, critical ability, class, etc.). Those data complicated media theory
tremendously and intensified the research focus on the complexities of audience
Lazarsfeld surprised many by concluding in The People's Choice, his classic study of
the 1940 election, that the media's effects are, in general, much more selective
and limited than we assume. Other forms of communication, from those in the
education system to religious communication to interpersonal communication,
were apparently more powerful. The mass media were but one part of a larger
web of influence, and as one factor, their actual influence was mediated by
several other variables. Thus, the media's ability to control us was far less
pronounced than assumed.
That is the ultimate irony behind "The War of the Worlds." The discovery that
the media are not all-powerful, that they cannot dominate our political consciousness
or even our consumer behavior as much as we suppose, was an important one.
It may seem like a counterintuitive discovery (especially considering its provenance),
but ask yourself this: If we really know how to control people through the media,
then why isn't every advertising campaign a success? Why do advertisements
sometimes backfire? If persuasive technique can be scientifically devised, then why
do political campaigns pursue different strategies? Why does the candidate with the
most media access sometimes lose?
The answer is that humans are not automatons. We might scare easily, we might,
at different times and in different places, be susceptible to persuasion, but our
behavior remains structured by a complex and dynamic series of interacting factors.
Later media theory, and empirical research, would complicate and refine those earliest
findings. But the basic problem of audience reception remains stubbornly resistant, and
as long as the mass media exist, we'll have empirical studies with dueling conclusions
concerning effects. Many people, including scholars, will continue to believe
something they intuitively suspect: that the media manipulate the great mass of
the nation, transforming rational individuals into emotional mobs. But notice
how those who believe this never include themselves in the mob. We are, as
the Columbia University sociologist W. Phillips Davison once pointed out, very
susceptible to the notion that others are more persuadable than ourselves.
Would you have fallen for Welles's broadcast?
If not, why do you assume so many other people did?
Hadley Cantril, The Invasion from Mars:
A Study in the Psychology of Panic (1947)
6 million heard broadcast; 1 million upset
4 announcements during broadcast; 4 after; some stations interrupted w/ others
Gallup poll: 28% believed it was a newscast; frantic telephone calls
Why did the frightened listener so readily confused fiction w/ reality?
broadcast fit organized mental construct:
radio accepted vehicle for important announcements: confidence in broadcasting
prestige of speakers (scientists, military men)
specific details (place names)
tuning in late: false (realistic) rather than correct (detached) standard of judgment
w/out proper warning signals: misinterpretation
Panic arose from an error in judgment; what enabled people to choose correctly?
more highly educated/wealthier people recognized broadcast as a play:
capacity to distinguish between fiction and reality: on checking other sources
conditions inhibiting critical ability: personal susceptibility (insecurity,
phobias, amount of worry, lack of self-confidence, fatalism, religiosity,
frequence of church attendance); listening situation (corroboratory effect
of others’ behavior, contagion of other’s fear, immediacy of danger)
historical setting: instability of important social norms
unsettled economic conditions since 1929; European war scare; thrill of disaster
H.G. Wells: “the forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps and crush the
truth a little in taking hold of it” ("Experiment in Autobiography," 1934)
six comparative individual cases (2 well educated, 2 economically
insecure, 2 religious, each w/ 1 frightened, 1 not)
why the panic? suggestibility: preexisting mental sets made the
story understandable; lacking standards of judgment to make
reliable checks; no existing standards adequate to task; unaware of
clearest index of critical ability:
readiness to re-evaluate first interpretations
outstanding index to suggestibility: complete absence of awareness
that things might be otherwise (need to select and seek a standard of judgment)
panic occurs when a highly cherished, commonly accepted value is threatened,
and no certain elimination is in sight; extreme behavior evoked by broadcast
result of complete inability to alleviate/control consequences of invasion
Nov. 2, 1938 column: “I doubt if anything of the sort would have happened
four or five months ago. The course of world history has affected national
psychology. Jitters have come to roost. We have just gone through a
laboratory demonstration of the fact that the peace of Munich hangs
heavy over our heads, like a thundercloud.” [highly disturbed economic
conditions engendered widespread feeling of insecurity; Hitler provided
directed relief to bewildered souls]
Latent anxieties conducive to panic minimized if critical abilities can
be increased; attitude of readiness to question interpretations; need
for sufficient, relevant knowledge to evaluate different interpretations;
extensive educational opportunities, less harassed by emotional insecurity
from underprivileged environments