War of the Worlds and Media Literacy

As we discuss the stresses and fears of the late 1930s, the War of the Worlds broadcast provides a great vehicle to discuss how media can impact society. I first ask the students to discuss the importance of the date of this broadcast (night before Halloween, year before WWII, etc.). I then explain that they are to highlight/circle/underline the reasons why this radio play may have been thought of as an actual news report, why some believed it to be factual. The students then listen to about 17 minutes of the broadcast (minutes 3:30-20:20) and I am always pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoy just listening and using their imaginations. When we are finished, they then answer two questions:

  1. BRIEFLY summarize why people may have believed this to be an actual event:
  2. Explain what would need to be different about this broadcast to make a modern day audience (i.e. you) believe that aliens were really landing in New Jersey.

Students then pair/share and we have a whole class discussion.

What has been highlighted – students always reflect on the constant use of the word “professor” and Princeton University. The professor is also called “world famous” and “notable” – thereby establishing credibility.

*Use of scientific jargon to seem that they are more intelligent than the rest of us (transverse stripes, spectroscope, etc.)

*Inclusion of a counter-argument – it’s not all in your face that aliens are coming – several times opposite information is provided

*Organizations – National History Museum, Chief of Astronomical Division, etc.)

*Planting a seed – some mentions of activity on Mars early on in the broadcast.

*It sounds like news – breaking news, bulletin, etc. – music is being played and then interrupted – just like we would expect

*Eye-witness accounts – human interviews that are even funny

*Making intentional microphone mistakes that adds to the realism. The reporter getting fired and the mic just cutting off. Dead silence.

*Involvement of the military and martial law

*Lack of ways to verify the “news” with technology of the time

Question 2 – to make it a modern hoax

*Video – video that looks to be realistic (great conversation to be had about Deep Fake videos)

*being posted to multiple sources (some students said that they would look for social media influencers. More on that later)

*Turning on the TV – is this being shown on multiple credible news stations?

*Looking on social media for trending news, hashtags, and people on the ground.

*Look up people who live in the area on social media. Go to government agency social media accounts from the state/towns mentioned


I then plugged my smartphone into the smartboard and we went to TikTok and looked up some fake news from Ukraine. We looked at accounts showing videos of the Ghost of Kiev, etc. – the accounts had tens of thousands of followers and their videos were widely shared and commented on. We talked about people making money off of these fake videos (even including media from video games!) – just because something is widely shared does not make it true. We looked at their account names, when they were created, who follows them, what their other videos are on, etc. Of course, this is not to say that this information could not be true, but we need to compare it to other sources. We need to do a reverse Google image search, etc.

Then we discuss how the wide panic cause from the War of the Worlds broadcast is also a bit of an urban legend. Students did some initial research online and reported back. We discussed how newspapers were happy to report on the supposed panic as they were losing money to radio ads. Sensationalism always sells, etc. But then other students reported that the panic was more widespread. So we compare news sources… still up in the air about exactly what happened.

This conversation will continue through the year as we go further in our media literacy skillset.

Next up is creating our own fake news – https://breakyourownnews.com/ or https://www.worldgreynews.com/add-news

Broadcast – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g

Script and worksheet – https://docs.google.com/document/d/1lXy2uVBbrRN6YKArl29MIMX854b3wAdMqdKHJFhSdOc/edit?usp=sharing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *