Egypt’s uprising and media events | A response to Nikki Usher

Nikki Usher has just published a short blog post on , ‘How Egypt’s uprising is helping redefine the idea of a “media event”’ on the Nieman Journalism Lab website which argues that the protests in Egypt illustrate the need to rethink Dayan and Katz’s original concept of the ‘media event’.  It is an interesting thesis but I think Dayan himself would dogmatically cut her argument off at the knees. This is because the authors in their work are explicit  about what can and can not constitute a media event.

The authors state that ‘media events are unifying and reconciliatory and thus “differ from daily news events, where conflict is the inevitable subject” (1992, p. 8). However, what Usher is comparing is the rolling and ‘breaking’ coverage of multiple media outlets – some accessible only online – of the Egyptian protests to what Dayan & Katz saw as the ‘high holidays of mass communication’. If, for example, the protest lead to Mubark stepping down and the inauguration of a new, democratically elected president, that would be a traditional media event. Ongoing protests, while attracting much attention and an event in the media are not an media event on their terms.

A larger issue of course, and one that Usher hints at, is that the media environment that Dayan & Katz wrote in is completely different than today’s media environment. I agree and make a similar argument in exploring the funeral of Michael Jackson as a media event.    She is right to emphasize the globalization of the audience and the multiplication of screens; the Egyptian protests can be watched, tagged, shared and commented on by audiences on big, wide, small and tablet screen of people around the globe. Events in the media, such ad the Egyptian protests, or ‘media events’ in their original sense are no doubt becoming more immersive. This is something Hepp, Couldry and Krotz address in their excellent edited collection on media events.
Thus I would not call the ongoing events in Egypt a ‘media event’ in their purest form, though they may lead to such moments. Think of the Mine Disaster in Chile – the whole episode of miners’ disaster is not a D&K media event but aspects certainly are and none more so than their release which was anticipated, covered live, with reverence and given monopolistic attention.

If we do want to delve into the analogue literature of media events, perhaps what would be closer than describing the events in Egypt would be a ‘disaster marathon’ for its emphasis on saturated coverage. However such a title would do a disservice to the bravery shown by Egyptians protesting (though it would fit well with CNN’s instance for the longest time to cover the protest as a crisis). Lastly, Dayan and Katz don’t ‘own’ the term media events. So we are free, and should be encouraged to appropriate, build on and extend their thinking and no doubt the lens of current events often provides a useful opportunity to do so. Yet there is always the danger of calling everything a media event and then the term becomes as loosely used as Kellner’s ‘spectacle’.

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