Information is a vital resource during the Martians’ attack on England in The War of the Worlds, and how information is disseminated becomes a key theme, as the narrator makes clear early in the novel that the newspapers are able to sway people’s minds. As various bits of information work their way through England, it becomes evident that the dissemination of information doesn’t always serve the end of protecting people. Instead, people often pass along facts and fragments of news to comfort one another, or even to make a profit. This, however, only puts humanity at a disadvantage, and Wells demonstrates that people often assuage unpleasant thoughts by whatever means possible, distracting themselves by telling soothing lies or by focusing on secondary concerns like financial gain.
In many cases throughout The War of the Worlds, the newspapers fail to accurately report on the Martian invasion, especially during the first several days. Initial telegraphs about the incident (not including Ogilvy’s) embody the cavalier attitude most people have at the beginning of the invasion. One even reads, “Formidable as they seem to be, the Martians have not moved from the pit into which they have fallen, and, indeed, seem incapable of doing so. Probably this is due to the relative strength of the earth’s gravitational energy.” The narrator adds to this account, writing, “On that last text the leader-writers expanded very comfortingly.” His use of the word “comfortingly” is especially important here because it illustrates how eager people are to seek refuge in the reassuring words of supposed experts and “leader-writers” (i.e., senior journalists). Suddenly, any sense of urgency falls away when a specialist delivers information, regardless of how accurate this information is. It’s not hard to see, then, that the news can have a very dangerous effect on the population, since an accurate understanding and a sense of urgency are absolutely critical in any emergency, let alone an alien invasion. If people believe there’s no true cause for alarm, they won’t adequately prepare for the very real danger they face.
At first, even the narrator indulges the fantasy that there is no cause for urgency or panic regarding the Martian invasion. He spreads this delusion to his wife on the first night of the attack, when the Martians have just landed but have not yet begun to fully wreak havoc. Both to calm his own nerves and to comfort his wife, he tells her an array of facts, delighting in the information as if knowledge itself can protect him. “In particular,” he writes, “I laid stress on the gravitational difficulty. On the surface of the earth the force of gravity is three times what it is on the surface of Mars. A Martian, therefore, would weigh three times more than on Mars, albeit his muscular strength would be the same. His own body would be a cope of lead to him.” The narrator tells his wife these bits of information as they sit at their dinner table only miles away from the Martians, who have already killed a handful of humans. The fact that he and his wife can eat a meal and calmly discuss these matters illustrates how much comfort they take in (supposedly) understanding the science behind what’s happening. Moreover, it’s strange that the narrator relies on what Ogilvy told him as a way of quieting his nerves, considering that Ogilvy himself was killed by the Martians—a clear indication that scientific knowledge will do nothing to protect humans against these alien invaders. Nonetheless, the possession of information—accurate or not—gives the narrator a sense of agency and control, allowing him to avoid feeling completely helpless.
In addition to being used to create a false sense of security, information about the invasion is also twisted and misused for financial benefit. For example, upon finally realizing that the Martians do in fact pose a great threat to humanity, one newspaper takes advantage of the situation, exploiting it to make money. “In Wellington Street my brother met a couple of sturdy roughs who had just rushed out of Fleet Street with still wet newspapers and staring placards,” the narrator writes. “‘Dreadful catastrophe!’ they bawled one to the other down Wellington Street. ‘Fighting at Weybridge! Full description! Repulse of the Martians! London in Danger!’ He had to give threepence for a copy of that paper.” In this scene, Wells emphasizes how quickly critical information can be sensationalized. Of course, this greedy exploitation of humankind’s attraction to disaster and travesty is a complete misuse of the power of the media, which in this moment should focus not on writing papers that will fetch threepence per copy, but on responsibly conveying whatever information is necessary to help people survive the Martian invasion.
Furthermore, the papers seem to misunderstand the severity of the situation. In a world dominated by Martians—a world in which the only humans left alive must sneak through sewers to avoid detection—money will mean nothing. That the editors of such sensationalist papers so desperately try to capitalize on the invasion—penning catchy, dramatic headlines like “Dreadful catastrophe!”—shows that they mistakenly view capital gain as an end in and of itself, conspicuously ignoring the impending doom of the world as they know it. The narrator calls this a “grotesque mingling of profit and panic.” Unfortunately, when the news is used to propagate terror in the name of money, humankind is deprived of one of its few real chances at survival: free access to accurate information.
When considering the role of newspapers and the dissemination of information in The War of the Worlds, it’s worth remembering that the novel itself was originally serialized in 1897 in Pearson’s Magazine, a British periodical that appeared each month. This method of publishing stories was quite common in the 19th century, when newspapers and magazines would print longer works of fiction in several installments. Often, an installment would end on a suspenseful note so that readers would be more likely to purchase the following issue. Of course, it’s somewhat ironic that Wells’s novel—which seems to criticize the use of sensationalist writing for capitalistic gain—appeared in this highly-commercialized format. Nonetheless, this style of publication actually fits the content of the novel quite well, as the medium lends a certain credibility to the text, as if Wells’s narrator is recounting a true tale, framing it as a piece of nonfiction. In fact, Wells plays with this idea by having the narrator make frequent passing references to himself, insinuating that he—the narrator—is “a professed and recognized writer on philosophical themes.” By casting his fiction as a true story written by a “recognized writer,” Wells puts his readers in the same situation in which the narrator finds himself as he wanders from town to town trying desperately to ascertain new details about the invasion.
News and The Dissemination of Information ThemeTracker
News and The Dissemination of Information Quotes in The War of the Worlds
I began to comfort her and myself by repeating all that Ogilvy had told me of the impossibility of the Martians establishing themselves on the earth. In particular I laid stress on the gravitational difficulty. On the surface of the earth the force of gravity is three times what it is on the surface of Mars. A Martian, therefore, would weigh three times more than on Mars, albeit his muscular strength would be the same. His own body would be a cope of lead to him. That, indeed, was the general opinion. Both the Times and the Daily Telegraph, for instance, insisted on it the next morning, and both overlooked, just as I did, two obvious modifying influences. […]
But I did not consider these points at the time, and so my reasoning was dead against the chances of the invaders. With wine and food, the confidence of my own table, and the necessity of reassuring my wife, I grew by insensible degrees courageous and secure.
The most extraordinary thing to my mind, of all the strange and wonderful things that happened upon that Friday, was the dovetailing of the commonplace habits of our social order with the first beginnings of the series of events that was to topple that social order headlong.