In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Media Events

  • Introduction
  • Before Media Events
  • National Media Events
  • Transnational Media Events in a Globalizing World
  • Media Events and Digital Media
  • Media-Generated Events
  • Conflict-Related Media Events
  • Media Events, Cultural Memory, and Witnessing
  • Critical Approaches

Communication Media Events
Julia Sonnevend
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0189


“Media event” seems like a concept that has been around forever, but it is a relatively new invention in media research. Its origins can be found in Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz’s canonical book titled Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History, published in 1992 by Harvard University Press. The event that inspired Dayan and Katz was the visit of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat to Israel in 1977. While seemingly only a ceremonial media spectacle, this first official visit from an Arab country to Jerusalem in fact led to a (so far) lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. It was a powerful example of successful media diplomacy that captured the imagination of Dayan and Katz, so much so that they spent the next decade trying to grasp the magic of events in media. In Dayan and Katz’s strict taxonomy, an event would qualify for inclusion as a “media event” only if it fulfilled eight requirements. It had to (1) be broadcast live by television, (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, awe-filled narration, and the event had to be (7) integrative of society and (8) mostly conciliatory. Dayan and Katz presented three basic scripts of media events. These were contests (for instance, the World Cup, the Olympic Games, and the presidential debates), conquests (such as the landing on the moon and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Communist Poland), and coronations (for example, the funerals of President Kennedy and Indira Gandhi, the coronation of Elizabeth II, and the royal wedding of Charles and Diana). Overall, Dayan and Katz achieved a genuinely new understanding of events in media, inspiring further theoretical developments and empirical studies in communication studies and other disciplines. Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History was published after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a particularly hopeful time of history. Traumatic events, especially the 9/11 attacks, prompted many scholars, including Dayan and Katz, to revise the media event concept to include nonceremonial, unplanned events—for instance, wars, disasters, and terrorist attacks as covered by a wide variety of “new” and “old” media.

General Overviews

The term “media event” was developed by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz in their book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Dayan and Katz 1992). While other scholars considered events as covered by media before, it was Dayan and Katz who built up, defined, and established “media events” as a major concept within media research. Their book focused on the live television coverage of preplanned ceremonial events that bring societies together in a common viewing experience. Dayan and Katz argued that ceremonial media events are central for societies, and instead of being “media-distorted spectacles” they are in fact the high holidays of mass communication. The authors emphasized the power of the exceptional, the singular, and the magical in an academic field that had been fascinated mostly by the statistical study of processes and effects—the average and the ordinary. They were inspired by the work of Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Victor Turner and applied the anthropology of ceremony to media occasions of public life. The event that inspired the writing of Media Events was Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977, but the book was published only in 1992. In the years between, Dayan and Katz held multiple international and interdisciplinary workshops and refined the concept in a series of publications. For instance, in Katz 1980, Katz worked on the concept of “occasion” and introduced some of the case studies of Media Events. In Katz, et al. 1981, Katz, Dayan, and Pierre Motyl critique skeptical accounts of media events, most notably Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, which was also at the center of criticism in Media Events. Finally, in Katz and Dayan 1985, Katz and Dayan present the three scripts of media events (conquests, contests, and coronations).

  • Dayan, Daniel, and Elihu Katz. 1992. Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This canonical text introduces the concept “media event” and defines it with a strict set of characteristics. These characteristics include that the live television broadcast of the preplanned event interrupts daily routines, journalists use reverent narration while covering these events, and the broadcast is viewed by a large audience.

  • Katz, Elihu. 1980. Media events: The sense of occasion. Studies in Visual Communication 6.3: 84–89.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.2326-8492.1980.tb00125.x

    In this early overview of media events, Katz develops a definition and typology of the term “media event.” In doing so, he pushes back against arguments that suggest that a “sense of occasion” is being lost as people spend more time staying indoors and watching television. Several examples used in the article, such as Saddat’s visit to Jerusalem and Kennedy’s assassination, are expanded in the 1992 book Media Events.

  • Katz, Elihu, and Daniel Dayan. 1985. Media events: On the experience of not being there. Religion 15.3: 305–314.

    DOI: 10.1016/0048-721X(85)90017-X

    In this article, Dayan and Katz distinguish among three kinds of televised events—“conquests,” “contests,” and “coronations.” Contests are described as ceremonial competitions (such as the World Cup), coronations are major life events of public figures (such as marriages, or funerals of world leaders), and conquests are conceptualized as large steps forward for society as a whole (such as the moon landing).

  • Katz, Elihu, Daniel Dayan, and Pierre Motyl. 1981. In defense of media events. Paper presented at a symposium held in spring 1981 in Richmond, VA. In Communications in the twenty-first century. Edited by Robert W. Haigh, George Gerbner, and Richard B. Byrne, 43–59. New York: John Wiley.

    This chapter provides an introduction to how the authors became interested in the concept of “media events” after viewing Saddat’s visit to Jerusalem. The piece goes on to explore major critiques of media events (particularly Boorstin’s The Image) to argue for the importance and uniqueness of such events in their ability to command the attention of individuals and bring them together under wider social belief systems.

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