Myths, Mistakes, and #FakeNews: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday 14 May, 3.00pm – 4.30pm

MECO Seminar Room, S226, John Woolley Building A20, University of Sydney

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Fake news has existed since the dawn of modern journalism. Yet the term itself largely entered the popular lexicon only in the last decade. For all the public discussion of fake news, an agreed-upon definition, and a general understanding of the phenomenon, has largely escaped consensus. Is fake news any erroneous information delivered with an intention to deceive? Or is it the biased selection of facts without context? Is it simply propaganda by another name – or is it something else?

This talk discusses typologies of Fake News by focusing on a singular, illuminating case study: the mythic panic in response to Orson Welles’s ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast in 1938. Several themes emerge when closely examining initial reportage of the infamous mass panic that did not actually occur. Newspaper journalists reporting on the audience response to the program in the first two days after the broadcast often provided inaccurate, biased, and unverified information to their readers. Learning how this happened, and why it happened, and how it shaped history, will help us sharpen our critical skills and develop the type of media literacy that’s particularly relevant in today’s media environment.


Michael J. Socolow is an Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine [USA]. He is a 2019 Fulbright Research Scholar at the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra. The author of Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics, Socolow writes on U.S. media history, propaganda, and sports broadcasting. Professor Socolow is a former journalist, having worked as an Assignment Editor for CNN in Los Angeles, where he helped cover such stories as the O.J. Simpson trial and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and he worked as an Information Manager for the Host Broadcast Organizations at the Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney Olympics. His journalistic columns on media history have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, and numerous other outlets.


Dr Margaret Van Heekeren was appointed to a Lecturer position in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney in February 2019. She is a journalism historian, and a founding member of Macquarie University’s Centre for Media History. Dr Van Heekeren’s research interests include the history of fake news and false news, the history of ideas in Australian journalism, and continuity and change in news reporting practices. She will present her research findings on fake news at the 2019 International Communication Association conference in Washington DC in May.

This event is presented by the Department of Media and Communications (University of Sydney) as part of the Media@Sydney Seminar Series and the Centre for Media History (Macquarie University).