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'War of the Worlds' revisited in book by professor

October  11, 2013

When the earth was invaded by martians during War of the Worlds, a radio play broadcast by Orson Wells in 1938, some listeners were convinced that actual aliens had arrived and were annihilating the world with giant robots and death rays.

It may sound ridiculous today, but as the 75th anniversary of that famous broadcast approaches on October 30, the day before Halloween, an Augustana journalism professor is pondering a question: How can War of the Worlds offer insights into understanding today’s media environment?

“Is War of the Worlds still relevant? The answer in our book is a resounding yes,” said Dr. Wendy Hilton-Morrow, a contributing writer and editor for a new book, War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis. “What we’re trying to do is give historical context to a lot of concerns about media today.”

The book reassesses the original War of the Worlds broadcast, and encourages people to look both backward and forward to re-examine the role that media can play in their lives during times of crisis, whether that crisis is real or imagined.

The book is divided into 12 chapters authored by different media experts, including Dr. Hilton-Morrow, an associate professor of communication studies at Augustana College. She co-edited the book with Dr. Joy Elizabeth Hayes, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, and Dr. Kathleen Battles, associate professor of communication and journalism at Oakland University in Michigan.

According to a review by Tim Wall, a media expert at Birmingham City University, “The authors convincingly show that a historical grasp is essential to understand contemporary issues.”

For example, the best advice to avoid being misled by the media has not changed since the War of the Worlds broadcast. As the book notes, most listeners did not believe that aliens were actually invading, said Dr. Hilton-Morrow, although that fact was obscured by sensational reporting of the smaller number of people who believed that Martians were scorching the earth.

“Who changed the radio channel, to see if anybody else was talking about Martians? Did they talk to their neighbor and ask about it? Those who reached out to verify were the ones who were likely to arrive at a correct conclusion,” she said.

Now that our ability to quickly spread rumors has been enhanced by the Internet and social media, the lesson of War of the Worlds has grown ever more relevant in an age of hyperconnectivity.

In her chapter, Dr. Hilton-Morrow looks at radio news coverage during World War II, particularly on D-Day, and how carefully those newscasters applied the lessons gleaned from War of the Worlds – lessons that we cannot afford to ignore today.

“Seventy-five years ago, people were asking questions about who they could trust on radio,” said Dr. Hilton-Morrow. “Today, we’re still asking the same kinds of questions with social media.”

The book is written for teachers to engage students, or for anyone interested in understanding the world of electronic media from a historical perspective. More information about the book can be found at waroftheworldstosocialmedia.com. The book is available from Peter Lang International Academic Publishers and through Amazon.com.

Sam Schlouch
Director, Public Relations and Arts Promotion
(309) 794-7833
samschlouch@augustana.edu