‘Media Event’ and Contemporary Media: An Analysis

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Hamid Raza Khan*


‘Media events’ is a popular term which has become the focus of media and communications studies research in recent times. The term has been coined by Dayan and Katz in their book ‘Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History’ which they call a study of “festive viewing of television.” What the two writers refer to are televised events which for a variety of reasons interest a large number of people who watch spellbound the suspense and drama contained in these events as they unfold on the screen (Dayan and Katz, 1992). Whether as a media term or a popular mode of television viewing, it is important to understand the nature and significance of media events because they hold important keys to explaining why people turn in mass numbers to watching a particular event; why and how such events constitute a significant importance in the efforts aimed at building a sense of identity and pride among members of a “an imagined community;” and why and how some of these events transcend national borders to capture the human psyche throughout the globe. ‘Media events’ hold mirror to a society in that they reflect and promote popular aspirations built around occasions which come to define and celebrate the social and political history of a nation. Given their importance in our lives, ‘media’ events as a television genre have come under increased scrutiny by media researchers who in recent years have tried to reason out whether the term as it is defined by Dayan and Katz can be applied to contemporary ‘media events.’ A major dimension of this debate is explained by the long distance which television as a tool of technology and a mode of viewing has covered since the early 1990s when Dayan and Katz tried to define and analyse media events as a distinct television genre. This essay critically looks at the definition and characteristics of media events and argues that the scope of media events as proposed by Dayan and Katz is narrow enough to cover a broad spectrum of televised media events which are taking place in routine within the national and global media space.

Understanding media events

Media events are not a recent phenomenon.    The popularity of media events as a mode of television viewing dates back to the early 1940s when movie-house newsreels, newspapers and commercial radio combined themselves to bring everyday life into the people’s drawing rooms, giving them a sense that they were very much a part of the events unfolding elsewhere but being reported to them in their fullest details. The phenomenon picked up in the 1950s when people were able to watch live historic events such as the coronation of the British Queen in 1953. These events served to unite the people and affirm on them social and moral values broadly practised and cherished by the members of a nation. A decade later in 1963, the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy was also a big media event which underlined the power of the electronic media to enthrall millions of viewers across America and elsewhere as they watched and listened to details of mourning at the last rites. A similar viewing response was accorded to the historic peace journey of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977. For three days he remained focus of a consistent gaze and glare of television cameras which captured his words and images and broadcast them live to millions of viewers who saw history unfolding and peace getting a chance in a region ravaged by wars and conflicts among neighbours. While the event generated immense interest among the Israelis and the Egyptians, it also left the other Arab nations as well as the world bemused and fascinated by the gripping TV pictures (Katz and Liebes, 2007).

In 1992 when Dayan and Katz published ‘Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History,’ they had among others the above three events to suggest as representations of the phenomenon they described as ‘media event’. By media events, Dayan and Katz mean all those historic events “that are televised and transfix a nation or the world” (ibid:1). These are mostly “occasions of state” and involve a grand celebration of epic contests, conquests and coronations at the state level and with full participation, physical or on air, of the public. Dayan and Katz argue that “events such as the Olympic Games, Anwar el-Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem, and the funeral of John F. Kennedy have given shape to a new narrative genre that employs the unique potential of the electronic media to command attention universally and simultaneously in order to tell a primordial story about current affairs” (ibid:1). As stated before, these events are distinguished for their festive viewing and generate a massive appeal and interest among the audiences who stop their routines to enjoy themselves with what Dayan and Katz call high holidays of mass communication.

While defining media events, Dayan and Katz (1992) list up several attributes which distinguish such events from the everyday genres. To start with, media events are marked by the interruption of routine in that they intervene in the normal routine of broadcasting and the lives of the audience. These events are live and broadcast as they occur in real time which assigns these events an element of suspense and drama. Besides being live, these events are also preplanned and have a scripted character. They take place in remote but real locations outside television studios and are presented with reverence and ceremony because of their importance to core values of society. They also celebrate peace and reconciliation, not conflict and hostility. Because of their being gripping and enthralling, these events always attract huge audiences who are spread over in one or several countries or throughout the globe. Before the event takes place, there is excitement in the air as viewers inform and update each other on the significance of the event and how it warrants an obligatory viewing. Even the mode of viewing is celebratory as viewers gather before their television sets in groups and exchange pleasantries as they take an active role in the celebration. Above all, these events seek to integrate societies and promote a collective sense of loyalty to the society and its institutions. In all, media events follow three basic scripts

– ‘conquests’ which mark great steps for mankind; ‘contests’ which refer to sporting and political events such as world cups and elections; and ‘coronations’ which may include royal weddings, state funerals and commemorations etc.

Dayan and Katz (1992) also make a distinction between ‘media events’ and ‘news events’. They argue that an event which is preplanned would be a media event and the one that is unplanned would be a news event. News events, for Dayan and Katz, are not preplanned but newsworthy. They advance their argument through the examples of the live reporting of the leaking atomic energy plant at Three Mile Island which they believe “is a great news event, but not one of the great ceremonial events that interest us” (ibid:9). Their second example relates to US President Kennedy whose funeral for them is “a great ceremonial event” while his assassination is “a great news event”. Their argument is based on the reasoning that the messages and effects of these broadcasts are different and they are also presented in different tone. They feel that “great news events speak of accidents, of disruption; great ceremonial events celebrate order and its restoration” (ibid:9).

Following the  argument put  forward  by  Dayan and  Katz,  one can understand that media events are essentially planned events such as coronations, state funerals and the Olympics. They are live with preplanned interruptions; they celebrate national and social reconciliation, not conflict; they gather large audiences; and create a special viewing situation not just as an entertainment option but as a social obligation.

Relevance to contemporary media

Dayan and Katz’s definition of media events suggests that media events are essentially large-scale media narratives through which a strong sense of social or national bond is focused and achieved. In describing these events, media becomes a frame on everything that transpires society. Such events may either be unplanned or are staged like live aid concerts, telethons, big charity raising events, political events or world summits. Sometime, however, events happen unplanned in the form of natural disasters, crises, political issues and scandals which are played out by the media at the same scale and in the same way as planned media events. Such events are also viewed by a large number of people and generate viewing patterns similar to those of planned events. However, according to Dayan and Katz, the latter category of events does not fall in the purview of media events. Instead, they treat these unplanned events as ‘news events.’  If this argument is applied to television coverage of Diana’s death, the planned coverage of her funeral was a media event but the unplanned interruption of transmissions and coverage of the events on the day she died was not a media event.  This argument has baffled many critics who find Dayan and Katz’s explanation of media events artificial and simplistic. They question the justification for separating the Kennedy funeral from the Kennedy assassination which in other words seeks a focus on ceremony and not on the disaster that led to the ceremony. Similar questions are raised for leaving out from the range of media events the horrors caused by natural disasters which are similar to media events as they interrupt routine media transmissions and screen time is devoted entirely to these events as they develop and unfold on the television screen.

According to Israeli media theorist Tamar Liebes, natural disasters share characteristics of media events as they force a suspension of ordinary routine and play as “people gather in front of the television screen, seeking for ways of staying in touch with collectivity, at a highly charged moment” (Liebes, Tamar, 1998:72). To make her point, she refers to the Israeli television’s disaster marathon in the wake of a series of terrorist bus bombings in March 1996. For three consecutive days, television assumed a dominant role in the lives of viewers who felt the need to watch a blow by blow coverage of the event even though it was not pre-planned. The television coverage came as an immediate response to the suicide attacks but there was a sense of collective viewing as the whole nation watched the event.

In recent years, the television coverage of natural disasters such as the Tsunami that struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in December 2004 and killed tens of thousands of people in Indian Ocean coastal communities; hurricane Katrina which hit the southern coast of the United States in August 2005 and left 1800 people dead; the massive earthquake that shook Pakistan’s northern areas and Kashmir in October 2005 and killed more than 70,000 people; and the devastating floods which routed a large swathe of humanity in Pakistan in the summer of 2010 has further established the argument that media events cannot necessarily be pre-planned. The television coverage of the Pakistani earthquake was so prompt that within half an hour of the quake, television crews had converged on a multi-storey building which collapsed in the centre of the capital, Islamabad. Across the country, 160 million Pakistanis who had barely recovered from the shocks of the 7.6 magnitude tremors watched in shock and horror as private channels launched themselves into one of the longest disaster marathons in Pakistan, giving minute- by-minute coverage of how a handful of early rescue workers, many of them onlookers, struggled to rescue over 200 residents trapped under giant pieces of concrete and boulders. While the attention was still focused on the rubble of the collapsed residential quarters in the capital, reports quickly started filtering in from the country’s north regarding the large swaths of human population that had been wiped out by this deadly disaster. On the first day of the tragedy, there was barely an individual in Pakistan who did not turn to television in a compulsive viewing of the aftermath of the tragedy. The ‘disaster marathons’ continued for the next several days as slews of television crews representing both local and international channels fanned out in the rugged mountains and valleys in the disaster zone and sent back pictures of the bulldozed buildings and houses with human limbs and disfigured bodies still trapped under the rubble.

A look at the media coverage of havoc caused by the earthquake and recent floods in Pakistan and similar disasters elsewhere clearly indicates that there is little, if any, difference between the way such events and the media events as defined by Dayan and Katz are covered by the media and watched by a large number of audience. The fundamental difference between these events is their being planned or unplanned. Besides this difference, the two sets of events share many characteristics at least in terms of the scale of live media coverage and the public viewing they command. With so many similarities between them, it is therefore arbitrary to impose the restriction of ‘unplanned’ on one set of events and then exclude them from similar events just because the latter were pre planned. If this artificial restriction is removed, then disaster coverage is very much a part of media events (Couldry, Nick, 2003:64).

However, such an argument leads to another interesting dimension of media events as explored by Tamar Liebes (1998) who while describing the television coverage of suicide bombings in Israel argued that if we include disaster marathons in the category of media events because they share the characteristics of the latter, then we are including events which are far from positive. She refers to the split nation of Israel which is made up of a sizeable portion of Arab population and argues that the affirmation of a sense of unity is very difficult to achieve because the television coverage of the suicide bombings carried out by the Palestinian bombers was largely aimed at an audience excluding the Palestinians and other such segments of the population and the three-day disaster marathons only served to split the nation rather than forging any sense of common identity and unity among them (Liebes, Tamar, 1998).

Besides television’s disaster marathons, there are political issues, scandals and crises which also need to be treated as media events given the massive media interest they generate. Many of these events may not be pre-planned but once they happen, they force interruption of routine television transmissions which are devoted for hours to the coverage of these events depending upon their significance and the viewing patterns generated at a community, national or international level. In Britain, universal reporting, interspersed by lively debates and discussions, of the occasion when British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood down from his office in June 2007 or the non-stop media coverage in the form of extended television news package and live updates on the events surrounding the abduction of the three-year-old British girl Madeleine McCann in Portugal in May 2007 were two key events which largely fit the description of media events as advanced by Dayan and Katz (Cottle, Simon, 2008).

Similarly, it is unfair to exclude political events from the domain of media events merely because the latter are by and large conflictual in nature. Except for Dayan and Katz’s restricted definition, these events are very much media events within the larger sense in which they are treated by Dayan and Katz. If we look around, we can find scores of political events which have been widely covered by the media in recent years. In Pakistan, for example, where television has revolutionized the phenomenon of live broadcasting in recent years, there were four major media events which took place in 2007. Despite being unplanned they prompted the electronic media to devote several exclusive hours of transmissions to the coverage of these events. One of the events was the sacking of country’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry by President Musharraf in March 2007 on charges of ‘misconduct’ and ‘misuse of power’. From the moment the news leaked out to the media from the President’s house where the chief justice had been “summoned” for handing him the supposed ‘charge sheet’, it became the day’s sole news for television channels which suspended their routine transmissions and started giving blow by blow coverage of the event, including news about the ‘detention’ of chief justice at the President’s House for several hours to allow another judge to be sworn in as the new chief justice, the deposed judge’s attempts to go to the Supreme Court building on his way back from the President’s House, the clash between his supporters who quickly gathered outside his official residence and the security officials and the chief justice’s subsequent talk to the media in which he denied all the charges leveled against him.

Another unplanned media event which drew massive television coverage in  Pakistan was  an  armed  clash  between security forces and militants holed up in Islamabad’s Red Mosque in July 2007. The violence started when during the course of a demonstration, students from a nearby seminary stole weapons from a picket set up by security officials outside the Red Mosque. As the police tried to disperse the students, the latter opened fire and killed a security official. This led to a cross-fire which left 9 dead and 150 injured. The dead included a news TV channel’s camera man and a passerby. Later, a large contingent of security forces cordoned off the area and ordered militants holed up in the mosque to surrender. The stand-off continued for 10 days and when all attempts in persuading the militants to surrender failed, the army stormed the mosque compound and gained control after a bloody gun- battle which left over 100 people, mostly students, dead.  For most of the 10 days the ‘Operation Silence’ continued, it only added to the noise of agitated reporters giving live coverage of the battle scene amid the deafening sounds gun shots and grenade explosions. Many of them set up in a large shopping mall only a mile away from the scene of conflict. The public outcry the event caused was equally massive, with a large number of critics and opposition leaders slamming the government for failing to deal with the crisis in a more skillful and less violent manner (The Nation, 2007).

But despite these events tying well into media events, there is a fundamental difference in the way they affect the society. While Dayan and Katz argue that media events celebrate peace and reconciliation and not conflict and hostility, the political events like disaster marathons heighten a sense of crisis and broaden the scope of crisis. As an example, Daniel Hallin (1994) refers to the three Reagan-Gorbachev meetings in the 1980s, adding that these summits “fit fairly closely to the model of ‘media events’ put forward by Elihu Katz and Daniel Dayan” (Hallin, Daniel, 1994:136). But these summits do not correspond to the argument that all media events tend to integrate societies and bring members of a community together around shared values and a shared sense of identity. Hallin argues that such an effect is achievable only if the audience being addressed by the media is within a country or nation as was the case with the Kennedy funeral (ibid:136). But an international summit goes beyond the scope of national audience and assumes the position of an international media event. According to Hallin, if Dayan and Katz’s definition of  media  events  is  followed, then  such  summits should push toward international integration and a sense of common identity transcending a nation state. But the Reagan-Gorbachev summits, as televised events, were merely ‘rituals of pacification’ with only lip- service given to international reconciliation in “the most vague and general content” (ibid:148).

Besides summits, more grave events such as 9/11 which was treated as an international tragedy or the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car crash in September 1997 or the violent death of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, have had their share of social crisis which have followed.

The events of 9/11 shook the whole world and everybody joined the course “we are all American today.” Yet some American channels had flashed images of Palestinians celebrating the terrorist attacks within hours of the mayhem in New York and Washington.

Lady Diana’s death was a big international media event with television channels dedicating several hours to the non-stop coverage of the tragedy. Within Britain, the television coverage of the princess’ funeral was “the greatest media story ever told”. The whole nation watched in shock and disbelief as the body of their ‘princess of hearts’ was lowered into her final abode. Yet, as Robert Turnock tells us, the whole event was not entirely “hegemonic” and “in relation to the British television audience at least, there were still many who did not watch, and of those who did a surprisingly large number do not appear to have conformed to the expectation of grief or shared emotion” (Turnock, Robert, 2000).

In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto’s death was also interpreted in a similar fashion. The fact that a slew of television crew were already present at the scene where she was assassinated after a political rally, provided the whole Pakistani nation and the viewers elsewhere in the world with an opportunity to watch live the shocking event with on-the-spot reporters telling the viewers initially that the PPP leader had survived the attack. But within the next five minutes they were reporting “possible” injuries to her and it took them barely half an hour more to confirm to the viewers that the she had died. As the news of her death flashed, the television screens were also painted with words ‘Shaheed Bhutto’ which means ‘Bhutto the Martyr’. In the next several hours that followed, “there was a profound sense of mourning on the television and in the print press … it seemed like the media was mourning Benazir Bhutto along with the rest of the nation” (onthemedia.com, 2008). But despite the mainstream electronic media eulogizing her services as the first female Muslim prime minister, discordant voices were also being heard debating “whether she was the photogenic, fearless first female leader of a Muslim nation who heroically inherited her father’s legacy and his tragic fate, or was she a corrupt politician so widely criticized that she had to broker her return to Pakistan to avoid being arrested upon entering the country” (ibid).

This lack of social integration and commonness was also visible in the television coverage of some Pakiatan-specific events I have mentioned above, including the events surrounding the sacking of Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry by President Musharraf, the armed clash between security forces and militants of Islamabad’s Red Mosque and the imposition of nationwide emergency and the sacking of 60 top judges by President Musharraf the same year. With each of these events receiving many hours of live television coverage and massive viewing by the people, there were no uniform opinions on why these events took place and what consequences they were likely to have on the country’s society and politics. Also in Pakistan, a more elaborate example of such a media event was the television coverage of violence which erupted in Karachi on May 12, 2007 and left 48 residents dead on a day when two rallies were planned in the city – one by lawyers to welcome Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was scheduled to address a meeting of the city’s lawyers on that day and the second by MQM, a staunch ally of President Musharraf and enjoying a strong power base in Karachi. As the media reports suggested, the government was inclined to put up this show of power to divert attention from Iftikhar Chaudhry who had previously drawn large crowds at similar meetings in other cities. Given the importance of the event, dozens of television crews were already present at the Karachi airport and the Sindh High Court building where the lawyers had made arrangements for the rally. However, hours before the justice’s plane touched down the airport violence broke out in the city. The traffic on the roads leading up to the airport was blocked and the deposed chief justice was detained at the airport and subsequently forced to fly back to Islamabad. Not finding any chance of the lawyers’ rally going ahead, the waiting TV cameramen turned their full attention to the violence and for the first time people in Pakistan saw armed men patrolling streets and shooting down commuters and bystanders with impunity. During the course of the day, armed gunmen also fired for three hours at the offices of popular news channel Aaj TV for its more graphic coverage of the violence. For many commentators and human rights activists, the violence was politically motivated and aimed at preventing the deposed judge from putting up a show of strength like the way he had shown in other major cities before (Daily Dawn, 2007). The reaction of the public to this violence was summed up by a front-page story ‘Karachi bleeds, nation weeps’ in the Daily Times the following day. The civil society, lawyers, human rights organisations and the opposition parties demanded a thorough probe but they were dismayed when President Musharraf who addressed a political rally the same evening in Islamabad, dismissed calls for a probe and blamed the lawyers and the deposed chief justice for the violence. Not only this, he commended the people of Karachi for putting up a “successful” show of endorsing his government. For the people of Pakistan, the televised events of Karachi “left the psyche of the nation badly wounded and there were many who found their blood boil with hatred for what was happening in the country” (Beena Sarwar, 2007).

Arguably, “disaster marathons” as explained by Tamar Liebes’ narration of the television coverage of suicide bombings in Israel and my reference to similar media events in Pakistan, are likely to arouse divergent opinions because of an excessive element of violence in them. But in recent years there have been media events which were ostensibly planned to promote positive causes but failed to generate a sense of commonness among members of the community. An event that comes to mind straight away is ‘Live Earth’, a 24-hour series of nine concerts organised around the globe to raise awareness about global warming. Within Britain, media gave the event “exceptional” coverage with BBC dedicating 16 hours, much of it live, but overall the event “received less than unanimous and enthusiastic media endorsement” as explained by the headlines of several British newspapers mocking the event in no uncertain tone (Cottle, Simon, 2008).


Dayan and Katz’s definition of ‘media events’ has an intrinsic value in that it successfully relates to many a type of media events but it is very difficult to apply this term to the new emerging genres of media events which are far more complex to fit a narrow description. Dayan and Katz’s media events have a nationalistic framework and are formal in nature. They make sense if they relate to celebration of planned national events which have a long history attached to them and are celebrated by a nation in a formalised manner. But the globalisation of media events has broadened the scope of television viewing, introducing a disparate globalised audience espousing divergent philosophies, histories and outlooks on politics and society. As such, media events extending beyond national borders are very unlikely to cause social integration and generate a sense of commonness as they do at home. Similarly, the nature of media events being planned has also given way to the unpredictability of contemporary media events which are not bound by time and space constraints. Another point of concern is the exclusion of political events, scandals and summits from media events. If analyzed objectively, television coverage of events involving political drama is far greater than the media coverage of ceremonial events that hold their appeal to the audience in an expected manner and to a limited extent unlike political events which are more dramatic and cause widespread public interest. Given these limitations, it is apparent that the term ‘media event’ as enunciated by Dayan and Katz does not cover the full range of contemporary media events and it is time that media researchers revisited the definition and concept of media events to make them more comprehensive and representative of the contemporary phenomena.


1.   Beena Sarwar, 2007. Beginning of a movement. The News, November 25, 2007. Available  from  http://jang.com.pk/thenews/nov2007-weekly/nos-25-11-2007/enc.html

2.   Cottle, Simon, 2008. ‘Mediatized rituals’: a reply to Couldry and Rothenbuhler. Media, Culture & Society 30(1):135-140

3.   Couldry, Nick, 2003. Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge.

4.   Daily Dawn, 2007. Govt criticised for Karachi violence. Daily Dawn, 13 May. Available from http://www.dawn.com/2007/05/13/top16.html

5.   Dayan, Daniel and Katz, Elihu, 1992. Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

6.   Hallin,  Daniel,  1994.  We  Keep  America  on  Top  of  the  World.  London: Routledge.

7.   Katz, Elihu and Liebes, Tamar, 2007. ‘No More Peace’: How Disaster, Terror and War Have Upstaged Media Events. International Journal of Communication, 1: 157-166

8.   Liebes, Tamar, 1998. Television’s disaster marathons: A danger to democratic processes? In: T. Liebes & J. Curren, Eds. Media, Ritual and Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

9.   onthemedia.org, 2008. Daughter of the East, 4 January. Available from http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2008/01/04/03

10. The Nation, 2007. Reforming Seminaries. The Nation, 14 July. Available from http://nation.com.pk/daily/july-2007/14/editorials1.php

11. Turnock, Robert, 2000. Interpreting Diana. London: British Film Institute.