Remembering The Truth: A Study on Selective Retention

Anthony Carbonetta
5 min readSep 30, 2019

Halloween is but a day away in the year 1938 and millions of people across the United States tune into their shiny new radios to hear that aliens have landed on Earth and are now rampaging through the countryside. Mercury Theater was broadcasting Orson Welles’ radio drama known as War of The Worlds. The radio play was structured like a breaking news story with no commercials and very graphic sound effects. As the broadcast plays out, around a million people “ran out of their homes, towels over their faces, clutching children, breaking limbs” in a panic; the country is being attacked and the police are helpless to stop the panic of the radio hoax. Germans were fresh on the mind as inklings of a second world war were emerging so the general public was under the impression that they were under attack by Nazis. Robert Krulwich of Radiolab added, “when [people] called operators or police, they didn’t say “Oh my God, we’re being invaded by Martians” they said “Oh my God, we’re being invaded by Germans”. As a few days pass, the fabricated story became just that in the minds of everyone, a hoax. Despite the story simply being a radio drama to spark harmless Halloween scares, it created a frenzy, with “some New Jersey media and law enforcement agencies [receiving] up to 40% more telephone calls than normal during the broadcast”. It was constituted as a major freak out that will forever be cemented in the minds of millions of people, or was it?

The fallout of the broadcast could be deemed as an example of a theory called selective retention, as radio editors and media historians are still found conflicted on just how severe the issue was on the night the play aired. On November 2, 1938, the Australian newspaper The Age called this strange incident an example of ‘mass hysteria’ while media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow wrote in Slate in 2013, “the supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast”, concluding with, “almost nobody was fooled”. With coverage that gives polar opposites like these examples, it can be hard for the mass media to get a handle on what truly happened. When discussing this strange phenomena of the news, the idea of ‘fake news’ or media bias may pop into your mind and while that may apply to the subject, the article and broadcast act as strong examples of selective retention. Well, what exactly is selective retention? In the context of mass media, it can be defined as a bias where people are more likely to recite or remember a message that is related to their beliefs than those that come across contrary to their values.

The concept of selective retention has arguably only grown in today’s society, with President Donald Trump’s popular coined phrase “fake news”. With this idea of an ‘untrustworthy media’ on the rise, especially after the 2016 election, the masses can find it hard to realize a truth in news coverage without some political bias attached. People have found it much harder to trust big tech companies like Facebook and Google in the past few years because of these supposed political affiliations as well. Adrien Chen’s article, The Fake News Fallacy, covers in depth how this retention shows a prominence in the modern world, especially how it can tie to newscasts and social media. Chen notes that fake news can be seen by many as a virus among users that can spread around the internet at breakneck speeds. The interesting notion of that being how that information is spread. With the rapid gratification and speed of a message on a cell phone, a lie could be shared across the globe with the press of a finger faster than computers can analyze and verify all because of how people remember different elements of a message. Chen states, “the ‘share’ button sends lies flying around the Web faster than fact checkers can debunk them”, meaning that misinformed ideas can make their way across the internet for people to understand and agree with whether or not it is true in any way. Even if there were a system that could fact check and verify the sound discourse of articles, people are not willing to be swayed from their preconceived notions. This implies that people are going to hear and recite what fits their agenda whether or not it is totally grounded in truth. Chen adds, “A person does not process information the way a computer does, flipping a switch of ‘true’ or ‘false’” when discussing how many right-wing activists are trying to expose the media bias against them, which many people believe to be a fabricated claim. With the amount of news influx, it can appear like political affiliations are being censored but in a world of mass communication, the answer to right-wing censorship may not surface.

In 2019, it can seem almost impossible to find the truth from media, considering how many different articles are posted with varying opinions and a lack of certainty over which information can be guaranteed correct. With an evolution of mass media products such as the radio and cell phones, instances of selective retention only seem like they will continue. People can easily find themselves in the middle of an issue they choose to take a strong stance on or could be led astray by someone looking to bend the truth in their headlines. In the case of War of the Worlds, the paranoia can become prevalent when minds remember a different story than the one told. The masses of 1938 were so fixated on the Germans attacking despite that never being said during the radio drama because of all of the controversy surrounding it. Even the clashing coverage afterwards plays into the narrative of the concept. Selective retention has shown how people can be divided and sent into uproars when the truth can slip through the cracks in people’s minds. Regardless of the platform, the idea of finding a truth in mass media outlets will never appear evident when everyone chooses to remember the messages differently."

Works Cited

Chen, Adrian. “The Fake-News Fallacy.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 July 2019.

“The War of the Worlds (1938 Radio Drama).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Sept. 2019.

“War of the Worlds: Radiolab.” WNYC Studios, 30 Oct. 2018.