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How The Press Reported Pearl Harbor Attack to the World

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If the attack on Pearl Harbor happened today, Americans would follow every second of it on social media and news networks. But 80 years ago, there was radio and newspapers.

“A lot of the radio reporters were saying things like, ‘this is not a hoax, this is not a test this is actually happening,”’ said Patty Williamson, a professor of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University.

It was happening. For real.

America was being dragged into World War II with an attack at least 2,000 miles from most Americans. For 1941, word of the attack spread quickly.

“It was really by phone, some of the messages were sent by telegram at the time,” said Williamson, “To be able to get information from one source to the other.”

For today’s standard, it was devastatingly slow. There were two sources of news, the paper and the radio.

“I think on average, people were listening to about 4 1/2 hours of radio a day,” said Williamson, “So much like TV would be today.”

The radio is where the first snippets of news on the attacks went, detailed print stories came later.

“The attack happened after a lot of newspapers had already put their edition to bed,” said Williamson, “So it wasn’t even in the next day’s news cycle.”

The bigger papers could release a later edition but the small towns were nearly two days behind. The style and language showed a sign of the times.

“I think the language that was used would not be quite as delicate as we might use today,” said Williamson, “In fact, it would’ve been pretty inflammatory in some of the stories that you’d be hearing.”

After the attack, updates were slow to report and spread but while looking back at clippings of the day, the media played a new role, pushing the war effort harder than ever.

“After Pearl Harbor, it was a much easier sell to the American people,” said Williamson, “It was radio, it was film, it was newspapers and magazines. All of them were really helping with the war effort by that point.”

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