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Charles Martin
Charles Martin

Media Events In A Global Age ##TOP##


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.




media events in a global age ||


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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


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.


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.


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.


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


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 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.


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