Event [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“While events are essential for individuals, societies and media, they are not the sweet hearts of media scholars. Events are like ill-behaved teenagers: they are hard to fit in any rigid system of thought. Many events are idiosyncratic, contour-less and quite resistant to typification, while others are too often repeated to attract scholarly attention.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Event — Julia Sonnevend, University of Michigan

An event – not life, as John Lennon put it – is what happens when you are busy doing other things. Some events happen expectedly, for instance weddings and presidential inaugurations, while other events are sudden shocks, like cancer diagnoses and assassinations. Certain events gain significance beyond a family or a community and become public events. Events can even turn into global iconic events that international media cover extensively and remember ritually. These events produce peaks and crashes on social media and massive global viewing audiences for television. But be planned or unplanned, minor or earthshattering, all these events do the same thing: they structure our social and public lives; give reference points for our life narratives and national histories.

While events are essential for individuals, societies and media, they are not the sweet hearts of media scholars. Events are like ill-behaved teenagers: they are hard to fit in any rigid system of thought. Many events are idiosyncratic, contour-less and quite resistant to typification, while others are too often repeated to attract scholarly attention. What then might be the purpose of an essay on the relationship between media research and events? Is the task simply impossible?

Possibly. But some disciplines have already tried the impossible. Sociology, that according Daniel Bell specializes in generalization, has considered the general within the singular in its own burgeoning event literature (Abbott, 1983, 1990, 2001; Abrams, 1982; Alexander, 2002, 2009, 2012; Eyerman, 2011; Jacobs, 2000; Mast, 2012; Vinitzky-Serroussi, 2002, 2011; Wagner-Pacifici, 2010). History, otherwise dedicated to singularity, has also detected repetitive features in the narration of events (Bailyn, 1963, 1982; White, 1973; Sewell, 1996). And philosophy has produced a small bookshelf of literature on the elusive concept of events (Badiou, 2005; Danto, 1985; Hegel 1831; Ricoeur, 1984).

Some media researchers too have wrestled with events. For instance, Amit Pinchevski and Tamar Liebes (2010) wrote about the media coverage of the Eichmann trial as a public event. Daniel Hallin (1986) and Marita Sturken (1997) analyzed the media constructions of the Vietnam War. Barbie Zelizer (1992) examined the media representations and retellings of the Kennedy assassination. Some scholars have moved beyond the particular and singular to define whole genres of media events: these genres include for instance media scandals (Lull & Hinerman, 1997), disaster marathons (Liebes, 1998), media spectacles (Kellner 2003), social dramas of apology (Kampf, 2009; Kampf & Löwenheim, 2012), rituals of excommunication (Carey, 1998), live-covered events (Scannell, 2014) and mediatized rituals (Cottle, 2006).

But very few studies in media research put the concept of “event” in the center of their analysis. In most cases, events are taken-for-granted entities, simply ready for narration or identical with their narratives. An important exception is Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz’s Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (1992). Inspired by the television coverage of a major historic event, Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat’s peace-making visit to Israel in 1977, Media Events developed a taxonomy for “media events.” A “media event” had to (1) be broadcast live, (2) constitute an interruption of everyday life and everyday broadcasting, (3) be preplanned and scripted, and (4) be viewed by a large audience. There should also be (5) a normative expectation that viewing was obligatory and (6) a reverent narration. Moreover, the event had to be (7) integrative of society and (8) mostly conciliatory (Dayan & Katz, 1992; Katz & Liebes, 2007).

Building on Max Weber’s concept of rational-legal, charismatic and traditional authority, Dayan and Katz also presented three scripts of media events. These were contests (for instance the Olympic Games and the Watergate hearings), conquests (such as the landing on the Moon and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Communist Poland) and coronations (for example the funeral of President Kennedy and the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles). Many scholars have subsequently critiqued and built on Dayan and Katz’s understanding of media events (Rothenbuhler, 1988; Zelizer, 1992; Scannell, 1996, 2014; Schudson, 1993; Price & Dayan, 2008; Couldry, Hepp & Krotz, 2010).

Dayan and Katz provided us with a strong concept of a “media events” genre, but they also somewhat limited the scope of the general theoretical discussion on “events in media.” What about events that do not have live coverage (like the Cambodian genocide), events that are not covered by television (like the Eichmann trial in Israel) and events that are celebrated in one country but not in the other (the fall of the Berlin Wall in American and Soviet media)? In other words, what about events that are covered by media but not by the canonic Media Events?

In this keyword essay I will consider “events in media,” including but not limited to the narrow genre of “media events.” I focus on four aspects of events in media: (1) the power of the occurrence vis-à-vis its narrative as an “event,” (2) the witnesses who tell the story of an “event,” (3) the embodiments of the “event” in various media, and (4) the travel of “events” through cultural and geographic boundaries.

(1) The power of the occurrence vis-à-vis its narrative as an event

Every event consists of some happening on the ground and a related narrative of an event. Four planes were deliberately crashed in the United States on September 11, 2001, these happenings altogether received the name “9/11.” On November 9 in 1989, after the desperate East German leadership mistakenly announced a new travel regulation in immediate effect, West German broadcast media convinced people to test the border in Berlin – an awkward occurrence that quickly precipitated the event later called “the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Or, to take another example, the systematic mass murder perpetrated during the WWII, originally narrated as an “atrocity,” became a moral universal in the West described over time as the “Holocaust” (Alexander, 2002). In all these cases a myriad of occurrences were pulled together in a narrative of an “event.”

But while narratives seem powerful tools in shaping events, they are not omnipotent. Consider the example of terrorist attacks. Seemingly they can be narrated in opposing ways, as acts of wanton destruction or as acts in observance of a higher moral order. A good example of framing a terrorist attack as a regrettable but unavoidable must is presented by a plaque on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem: “The hotel housed the Mandate Secretariat as well as the Army Headquarters. On July 22, 1946, [Zionist paramilitary] Irgun fighters at the order of the Hebrew Resistance Movement planted explosives in the basement. Warning phone calls had been made urging the hotel’s occupants to leave immediately. For reasons known only to the British, the hotel was not evacuated and after 25 minutes the bombs exploded, and to the Irgun’s regret and dismay, 91 persons were killed.” This original wording infuriated the British for suggesting that the British, not the Irgun, were responsible for the attack. Although the wording was subsequently revised, the final sentence of “regret and dismay” remained.

This excerpt shows the power of narratives in shaping occurrences into certain types of events, but it does not prove that narratives are capable of everything. We can narrate a terrorist attack as a crime or as an accident, but not as a wedding. Our narratives are flexible, but we cannot do whatever we want with them.  As Michael Schudson summarized the limits of our narrative power: “there are events in the world we can shape, distort, reinterpret but not fundamentally change. President Kennedy was killed by an assassin. There are lots of ways to read this fact but none of them restore John F. Kennedy to life. He really died” (Schudson, 2008, p. 92). There are many limited ways to read events.

(2) The witnesses of the event

Who sees and tells the story of an event, who writes its “birth certificate,” is central to every event’s existence. Storytellers are required to bind occurrences together and elevate them into an “event.” In other words, events need witnesses (Peters, 2001). Media witnessing occurs in three distinct forms: witnesses in media (when witnesses of the occurrence share their experiences in media), witnessing by media (when media bear witness to occurrences) and witnessing through media (when audiences are positioned by media as witnesses to occurrences) (Frosh & Pinchevski, 2009). These diverse forms of witnessing all shape the boundaries of events and communicate them to distinct primary and secondary audiences. Events also have competing witnesses, leading to contrasting counter-narratives. All events have diverse witnesses: even interpretations of events that some scholars call “hegemonic” are more multi-colored than they seem to be. Competition among witnesses and among narratives can keep events alive and can destabilize their meanings.

(3) The embodiments of the event in media 

Events are more vulnerable than we would think. We easily forget them. We do this not only with wedding anniversaries, but also with major historic events. Each generation has its own events that it regards as earthshattering. For instance, certain generations have flashbulb memories of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or the Kennedy assassination, other generations never forget the moment they received the news about the attacked Twin Towers. But an iconic event of one generation often appears nothing but boring history for the next. Events are heavy: it is hard to carry them across time, space, and media.

Therefore, in order to last and get recited across generations, occurrences need memorable narratives that construct them as mythical, resonant “events.” These narratives will also need to be carried by a diversity of media. Even the seemingly most powerful and visually spectacular event cannot survive the passing of time without substantial narrative efforts. A lasting narrative needs to be simple and universal, removed from the event’s original complexity, and transportable through diverse media platforms.

For instance, consider all the efforts of commemoration to keep the memory of 9/11 alive. Names of the victims are read aloud at Ground Zero at every anniversary, a huge cosmopolitan museum has recently opened in New York, and the event’s story is embodied in social media campaigns, souvenirs, documentaries and history books. Those who remember the day of September 11, 2001 may think it is unforgettable, but it is not. Few college freshmen today have acute personal memories of the event that took place over a decade ago; its lasting resonance will require promotion of the event’s simple narrative and spectacular imagery across “old” and “new” media alike.

(4) The travel of events across cultural and geographic boundaries 

Some events have to be narrated “only” on the national, regional or social group level. But global iconic events, that resonate internationally and over time, obviously need transnational media narration. There are five dimensions of their narration in transnational contexts: (1) foundation: the events’ narrative prerequisites; (2) universalization: the development of the event’s mythical message; (3) condensation: the event’s encapsulation in a brand of a simple phrase, a short narrative, and a recognizable visual scene; (4) counter-narration: competing stories about the event; and (5) diffusion, when the event’s brand travels across multiple media platforms and changing social and political contexts (Sonnevend, 2013b).

Let’s take the example of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

(1) Its story had narrative prerequisites: the story of the Berlin Wall itself, the global resonance of the city of Berlin, the Berlin airlift, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, among others. The lasting transnational story of the fall of the Berlin Wall has built on these narrative “foundations.”

(2) The happenings of November 9, 1989 were initially confusing, contradictory, and complex, although soon after the mythical message of the “end of division” turned those happenings into an “event.” In other words, the story went through the narrative process of simplification and universalization.

(3) This mythical “event” over time got condensed into a branded phrase (“the fall of the Berlin Wall”), a short narrative of freedom, and a recognizable visual scene. This brand became ready for global travel and trading.

(4) Unlike most global iconic events, the fall of the Berlin Wall is an exceptionally consensual event. Few deny its importance. But at its own time, in 1989, East German and Soviet media counter-narrated it as a minor occurrence, a small happening in a substantial and deliberate reform process they were championing. This counter-narrative did not survive the passing of time.

(5) The fall of the Berlin Wall as a global iconic event is now embodied in a diversity of media: it travels from mass media to social media to monuments, memorials, exhibitions, souvenirs, and many other media embodiments. The simple and universal narrative of the fall of the Berlin Wall has permeated the world from China to Israel to the United States, providing us with a contemporary social myth.

Through the above five-dimensional process of transnational storytelling, a global iconic event comes into being. Some global iconic events are more universal than others, some have more counter-narratives than others, but these five dimensions are generally present in their narration.

In sum, this brief sketch has examined four aspects of “events in media:” (1) the power of the occurrence vis-à-vis its narrative as an “event,” (2) the variable witnesses who tell the story of an “event” and (3) the embodiments of the “event” in various media and (4) the travel of “events” across cultural and geographic boundaries. Events are diverse and tricky creatures. Capturing their elusive meaning remains a challenge. Events also move in and out of public memory, gaining or losing significance and meaning. Nonetheless, events keep shaping our international and personal relations, and continue to occupy our media. While scholarship may fall short of fully capturing global events in media, they continue all the while to engage our imagination.


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