See also the article "European Perspectives on a Disaster: Courrières (1906)" in the EHNE.
The concept of a media event
Communication is structured by its medium. The various media select, form, transfer and save these messages, placing individual communication events on a permanent footing, thus conferring them a degree of predictability. A continuous medial communication flow with its indefinite diversity is regularly consolidated into events focussing the majority of communication on a single occurrence. Recent examples include the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the death of Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) and the election of US President Barack Obama (born 1961) in 2009. Such media events are by no means a development of the television or internet age. Even before the dissemination of electronic media, such events made a decisive contribution to the formation of a common simultaneous perception across wide areas. This applied to political upheavals (e.g. revolutions), disasters (earth quakes, assassinations and maritime disasters), exceptional achievements (discoveries, sporting records etc.) or even ceremonies (e.g. royal funerals and weddings).
According to the definition established by Reinhart Koselleck, an occurrence first becomes an event after displaying "ein Minimum von Vorher und Nachher" ("a minimum of before and after") establishing a coherent period.1 This reference to its temporally constructive power constitutes an important warning against its inflationary application to every tragedy, election or even sporting event. Historical events are those with the ability to alter the course of history and contribute to the demarcation of historical periods.
Despite a considerable loss of interest in the analysis of individual events within the historical sciences as part of the turn towards "structural history" in the 1960s, the new "cultural history" of the 1990s re-established the event as a significant object of analysis. This new approach conceived of events as the turning points within a historical narrative, which themselves carry consequences. The historical event is now viewed as the expression of specific contemporary expectation and thus an anticipation of the future; occurrences thus only qualify as events in retrospect.2
The significance of media in constituting events is not the subject of consensus. Indeed, many historians take no account of the media or even the general framework of communications in developing their accounts of event formation.3 Not overtly rejecting the mediality of history, this omission would appear to constitute an oversight. In contrast, communications studies scholars have developed various typologies of events which view the degree of medial control as a defining characteristic. In doing so, they differentiate between "genuine events" and "media-driven events," staged, "pseudo events" and "pseudo events driven by the media." In the opinion of Helmut Scherer and Daniela Schlütz, the Eurovision Song Contest serves as a good example for the latter.4
This division may well be helpful in specifying the role of the media in event generation. Nevertheless, the assumption implicit in this model of a non-medial event or even a "pseudo-event" remains problematic. On the one hand, media-staged actions such as the Eurovision Song Contest are entirely capable of stimulating powerfully influential ascriptions and actions which justify classification as an event. On the other hand, the sinking of a ship or a political murder in Africa is not an event per se. Such occurrences always possesses the character of a real catastrophe but do not constitute an event if, unnoticed, they fail to become the subject of public communication. In the modern period, the broad communication necessary to transform occurrences into events takes a medial form and occurs in a supra-regional space. The public construction of meaning – whether performed by messengers, pamphlets or television – and its attributions acts as the mechanism transforming an occurrence into an event. This does not serve to dissipate actions into a discourse in any constructivist fashion. The dead bodies retain their character; yet whether their existence is structured into a meaningful event with a clearly demarcated before and after remains dependant on the media reporting. The structuration (to various degrees) of an occurrence into event may well render the term "media event" tautological, but nevertheless remains helpful in reminding us of the structure-giving role of the media.
Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp have suggested a concise yet open definition of media events as: "certain situated, thickened, centring performances of mediated communication focused on a specific thematic core, cross different media products and reach a wide and diverse multiplicity of audiences and participants."5 The extent to which the media influences the construction and even the course of an event can be illustrated by consideration of the following central characteristics of media events. At least six of these characteristics supplement the definition from Couldry and Hepp.
- Quantitively, media events are characterized by their public reach and communicative concentration. Such processes reach large sections of the medially connected populace in a very short time. "Breaking news" interrupts everyday communication, creating and synchronizing a cross-border public sphere. In doing so, media events have a group-building potential, even if the concentration of the occurrences can vary.6
- Qualitatively, media events have a special character, as they generate a specific "aura," attended by an emotionality which grips large sections of the populace.7 Media events are not just simply acknowledged as a new piece of news, but are loaded with immediate historical significance. The sociologists Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz speak of the "live broadcasting of history."8 The media itself contributes to this process via specific authentication strategies such as the visual creation of evidence and detailed micro-perspectives.
- Media events possess a high level of self-referentiality. Media reporting of such events often highlights the role of its own communication and in doing so the media coverage itself is accorded a high news value.9 The media subjects itself to stringent and clear critical evaluation in order to retain the interpretative high ground in the face of its misjudgements.
- Media events have to plot a course between the competing poles of expectation and surprise. Although appearing to be highly exceptional, surprising and contingent, only the expectation that something of this nature could occur generates the attention and fascination associated with a media event. The experience is characterized by the interaction of expectation and surprise, enabling rapid generation of meaning.10
- Occurrences first develop into media events through narrativization, i.e. being pressed into a story. An accident or achievement acquires a specific meaning as an event by its incorporation into an encasing story.11 The contribution of the media is to clothe it in the trappings of a characteristic narrative format (a pamphlet, report etc.) and a narrative form (personalisation and similar tools). This has led Katz and Dayan to refer to media events as the "new narrative genre" and in doing so, differentiate between three forms of narrativization: "contest" (e.g. sporting events), "conquest" (e.g. the moon landing) and "coronations" (e.g. weddings and funerals). Dismissal of unplanned events as "great news events" renders this classification implausible.12
- Closely connected with the media event is a characteristic (and conflicting) combination of shock and therapy, challenge and solution. Television in particular is accorded the "double role of observer and guardian," as its ritualized form of reporting with special editions, an expert etc., generates distance and provides solutions.13 Nevertheless, despite the special role of television, this process is nothing new. Many early forms of mass media such as popular prints reporting massacres, comets or miracle births in the 16th and 17th centuries, rounded off their stories in moralization, usually offering a religious interpretation of the event in question.14
Media events are usually associated with a physical presence. Interpretation of the events in terms of a performance approach is open not just to those immediately involved, but also the observers, itself something which comes into the media focus. This generates the phenomenon of double observation: the knowledge that their very presence is also the subject of reporting makes the viewers of a media event a central actor in the events themselves.
The incidence of media events thus has a social, cultural and media-historical basis. Although the accumulation of corresponding events in individual historical phases cannot solely be explained by recourse to the alterations in the prevalent medial ensemble, it has made a decisive contribution to this development. That a number of groundbreaking media events concentrated themselves between 1500 and 1900, in the 1960s, or around 2000 is also associated with the invention of the typographic printing press, the establishment of the mass press, the dawn of the television age and the recasting of the media landscape in the 1990s. Another factor of great importance are the social transformation processes active in these periods accompanying the new medialisation.
Early modern European media events
Two factors make it difficult to speak of early modern "European media events." The range of a media event orients itself not around the borders of countries or continents, but the respective mass-medial communication structures. Not only did this network come to address an extra European audience (North America) after the 18th century but vast expanses of Eastern Europe, especially the Ottoman possessions in South Eastern Europe, were denied regular (printed) media information regarding a wide range of events of the time. Moreover, Europe itself is a constructed entity: entirely lacking fixed territorial borders, a "core area" can at best be established ex post.
That individual events were accompanied by a higher concentration of communication in wide sections of Europe can be demonstrated for certain restricted events before the invention of the printing press. Indeed, medievalists have argued that the investiture controversy saw the creation of an ad-hoc public sphere with a broad, partisan and topic-related communication.15 The early modern period also provides a number of examples which show how media events created a pan-European communication sphere.
The Reformation demonstrated how the combination of new forms of communication and social upheaval could culminate in a European media event. The relationship of the Reformation to medial change has long been subject to a wide consensus in a number of disciplines. Indeed, the invention of the printing press has often been viewed as the starting point of the Reformation,16 and the Reformation has long been interpreted as a media event.17 Some historians have also spoken of a "revolution in faith and communication" producing a "structural change" in sacred communication.18 Not only did the new media influence the character of the Reformation, but the media landscape was itself changed by the Reformation, becoming bigger, more vernacular and developing new forms of communication. What is clear is both the quantitive increase in printed matter as well as the qualitative nature of the texts with their strong mobilizatory content. Hans-Joachim Köhler calculated that the period between 1520 and 1526 alone saw the production of 11,000 prints with a print run of around 11 million.19 Only the development of printing technology enabled such a broad, simultaneous and Europe-wide debate over the Reformation either through the export of pamphlets, or the printing of replies. The public burning of Luther's writings undertaken at locations ranging from England to Poland was itself also a part of the European media event.20 Despite their prohibition, his works achieved a cross-border circulation, his French readers reading the products of the Geneva and Antwerp printing presses. The Reformation meta-narratives, such as that of the life of Martin Luther (1482–1546), involving a level of personalisation, both heroic and pejorative in tone, still influence the popular understanding of the Reformation.
A similar level of interaction between new media formats and European event construction can be identified in the 17th century. Although the first known printed newspaper, the Relation, was printed in Strasburg in 1605, the breakthrough of this new medium came with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, which newspapers transformed into a European event. The fighting of the summer months took up between 70 and 80 percent of the content of German newspapers and 40 percent of the coverage in the winter months. Indeed, the reporting of the war brought about the expansion of newspaper distribution and reading in Western Europe. The war even received considerable newspaper attention in England.21 Some historians even ascribe a war-mongering role to the newspapers and pamphlets, which were seen as having contributed to the outbreak of hostilities.22 Newspapers also altered the mode of political communication and rule. The records, documents and reports published in the newspapers show that news reporting forced rulers to increase public efforts to legitimise their actions.23 Contemporary diaries and letters also confirm that newspaper reporting served to alter popular understanding of the world in general. These sources show that occurrences in far-removed countries had become a regular and established component of people's lives. The periodic reports of these far away places and events, appended with date and place contributed to the alteration of space-time relations.24
Other conflicts were also subject to the same conditions. The English civil war of the 1640s was accompanied not only by a partisan press, but the execution of Charles I (1600–1649) in 1649 developed into a key European media event. This thunderclap event resounded across Europe, carried in a plurimedial fashion in scholarly books, plays and handbills.
The late 17th century saw a debate over the concept of an event, as contemporary discussion of the nature and role of newspapers focussed on the innovation of "news." The first definition of an event was found in a lexicon entry from the 18th century, in which it referred to the element of surprise key to the concept.25 The increased concentration of communication in 18th century Europe was not just due to the extension of the newspaper business, but also resulted from the establishment of journals and their new, more reflective character. The development of public areas such as coffee houses also served to encourage the discussion of events. Wars, catastrophes or great discoveries developed into events in the second half of the 18th century, which then unfolded an even greater dynamic. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is an excellent example of an 18th century European media event, constituting both the subject of general enlightenment discussions and raising the particular question of theodicy. The event shook not just the urban fabric of Portugal's capital, but also the age-old certainties of an entire continent. Only the existence of the necessary medial networks enabled the local event to become an international force for religious and intellectual change.26 It also served to move Portugal closer to the centre of the European public sphere, something of great importance in transforming the expulsion of the Jesuit order from Portugal (1758) into a further media event.27
The succession of revolutions and political upheavals since the last third of the 18th century can also be understood as media events. This was already the case during the American Revolution, which began as a media event in which countless American journalists participated. Their contribution was vital in transforming conflicts such as the "Boston massacre" (1770) or the "Boston Tea Party" (1773) into events masterminded from within the editorial offices of the Boston Gazette.28 At the same time, the American Revolution had the character of a European media event, resulting in rising newspaper circulation and the politicization of the public sphere. Even those countries with strict censorship such as ancien régime France saw the publication of regular articles discussing the events in North America and thus highlighting the possibility of the existence of other state forms. French-speaking newspapers based outside France such as the Gazette de Leyde even became strong supporters of the American Revolution,29 something now considered as a significant cause of the French Revolution. Similar articles have also been seen as contributing to the origins of the Dutch "Patriotic Revolt" of 1786/1787.
Undoubtedly the most important event of the 18th century, the French Revolution, can also be understood as a media event. Gleaning its initial dynamic from within the culture of pamphlet discussion, media expansion and event construction reinforced each other. The growth in the number of newspapers in the years immediately after 1789 (by around 300) produced a combined newspaper and journal market of over 2,000 publications by 1799 in addition to the production of around 40,000 handbills.30 Hungry for news, the press descended on developments such as the famous "Women's March on Versailles," according them significance and making them appear news-worthy.31
The level of polarisation surrounding the revolution also produced a strongly partisan press in the countries neighbouring France, and the daily reporting of the revolutionary upheavals produced an increase in circulation. Reporting of the French developments led to an increase in local protests throughout the empire, the participants of which took up the symbols circulated in the media such as cockades or liberty poles. The media also occasionally offered justification for the violence as being part of a struggle for freedom. Others offered reasoned analysis or warnings that the revolution indicated a missed opportunity for reform.32 After contributing to an initial increase in print discussion, the Revolution served now to restrict it as fearful of domestic emulation, various European governments acted to clamp down on medial communication after the mid-1790s. Napoleon (1769–1821) added to this trend, introducing censorship in his newly conquered territories. The later revolutions of 1830 and 1848 also displayed structural similarities in their generation of events.
Modern Media Events
The late 19th century saw an increase in the number of media events, the explanation for which is undoubtedly to be found in the context of the new mass media market. The establishment of the telegraph and news agencies enabled the immediate and wide-scale transmission of news to be depicted in the high-circulation illustrated press and interpreted in the increasingly sophisticated mass press. Increased commercial competition between influential publishers and their high-circulation publishing empires also encouraged the construction of media events.33 Nevertheless, not all of these events can be viewed as being "European" in nature, as the imperial commitments of the European powers extended their communication networks to the far-flung outposts of their world empires, ranging from Japan to India and South Africa to Argentina. The extent of this international network often restricted itself however to the coasts of the various imperial possessions.
In classifying the media events according to the importance of the level of media orchestration and the extra-medial actions, we can identify five different types of media events which gradually increased in significance during the late 19th century.
- The number of media-orchestrated events increased rapidly in the late 19th century. Newspapers launched a whole array of competitions: for example in 1903, the French journal L'Auto launched a spectacular annual cycle race called "Tour de France" and the Berlin-based Ullstein-Verlag organized areal competitions and motorcar racing across the world. In 1889, the US publisher Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) commissioned his reporter Nellie Bly (1864–1922) to travel around the world in less than 80 days. The mass-circulation newspapers also created spectacular journeys of discovery with an event character. Thus, the New York Herald commissioned the journalist Henry Morton Stanley (1841–1904), to find the Scottish explorer David Livingstone (1813–1873) at that moment lost in Africa. His location was a transnational media event.
- The expansion and professionalisation of the media led journalists to uncover injustices and transform them into emotive cross-border media events by gaining access to factories, mental asylums, or even brothels and reporting on the conditions they found. In 1885, the pioneering journalist William Thomas Stead (1849–1912) staged the purchase of a 13 year old girl in London to uncover the "white slave-trade" thriving in the centre of the capital. In 1906, Socialist writer Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) uncovered the unhygienic and indefensible working conditions prevalent in the Chicago slaughterhouses through undercover investigation. Media events of this type often led to changes in the law, international outrage and a sustained change in public opinion. Many cases, such as that of the French Dreyfus Affair, served to polarize society, even dividing families. Conversely, prolonged discussion of a single topic by the whole of society resulted in a certain degree of social cohesion.34
- Violent deaths now acquired the status of transnational media events. The case of "Jack the Ripper" highlights the significance of the mass media; the newspapers contributed to the construction of the event by actively including the reader in the hunt for the murderer and at the same time, put forward various sociological interpretations of the crime. Often, the media even encouraged the criminal to interact with the media.35 The same applied to numerous assassinations, successful or otherwise of countless kings, presidents, and tsars at the end of the 19th century.36 This early form of terrorism aimed at creating public events. Sea catastrophes were also nothing new, but could now be staged as large media events, especially in the case of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Now a global media event, they generated mass shock, horror and a general discussion of the state of modernity and the media system.37
- Traditional ceremonies and acts of state were developed into European media events. Media coverage now invested royal weddings, jubilees or funerals with a new local and international presence. This medialisation encouraged further mass gatherings which itself added to its character as a media event.38 Although steadily losing power, the increased attention accorded to the lives and activities of monarchs increased their significance, transforming them into focal points of public attention and mass national identification. This increase in public attention caused the crowned heads of Europe to adapt their ceremonies to the requirements of a changed public sphere.
- One characteristic associated with this process at the end of the nineteenth century was the increase in predictable and planned transnational media events, especially in the area of sport (the Olympic games, world and continental championships and other similar events) and culture (world exhibitions, music premiers and similar events). Now appearing with regularity, such media events acquired the character of a caesura only if they produced exceptional occurrences (such as the 1936 and 1972 Olympic Games in Germany).
The mass availability of television since the 1960s increased its significance for modern media events. The audio-visual consolidation of the world meant that the interdependent processes of observation and interpretation of media events gained in clarity and emotivity. Conversely, a number of key media events (the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926) in 1953 or the football World Cup in 1954) made the breakthrough of television possible in the first place. Thus the moon landing (1969) was interpreted as a global media event and marked the triumph of television following the vital contribution which it made to staging the event.39 Even the Vatican changed in ceremony in 1958 to adapt the burial of the pope to the requirements of the television age.40
With the expansion of the European Community, media events with a specifically European reference gained increasing significance. Examples include media-generated events such as the Eurovision Song Contest (established 1956), journalistic revelations of European significance (such as the Seveso environmental scandal of 1976), cross-border police hunts (the anti-terrorist campaigns of the 1970s) or specific European political performances (such as Willy Brandt's (1913–1992) Warsaw Genuflection of 1970).
Nevertheless, the trend towards the world-wide expansion of media events continues uninterrupted. The 11 September and the subsequent global conflicts (such as the caricature controversy of 2005) are sure to be paradigmatic. Such media events increasingly force individuals and states to position themselves. The absolute silence over the death of John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) or Pope John Paul II by a country with the stature of China was noted as an interpretation designed to break with Western consensus of shock and mourning. One characteristic of this development is a cross-border contest over the initiation and interpretation of events. The pictures of the mistreatment of prisoners in Abu-Graib during the Iraq war taken on mobile telephones show just how easily global media events can shake established interpretations. Media events are impossible to control, even for a media superpower such as the USA.