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Feb. 8, 2011, 2 p.m.

How Egypt’s uprising is helping redefine the idea of a “media event”

In the fall of 1989, television screens in Wenceslas Square in Prague broadcast the massive rallies of the Velvet Revolution to the protesting public. It was a media event where television served as an intermediary, unveiling change as it took place. With the mass unrest in Egypt, though, we have a different kind of media event taking place. New forms of media are working with mainstream to provide a story to the rest of the world.

When I use the term “media event,” I refer to the sense of the term used by communications scholars Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz. They argued that certain events depart from news events, and instead become ceremonial occurrences that are treated with reverence by broadcasters (and by, today, the online community). In an update to their work in 2007, Katz and scholar Tamar Liebes note that, increasingly, media events provide viewers with “ready access to disruption.”

Ironically, when Dayan and Katz first thought about “media events,” they were inspired by the Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Israel. The three-day visit marked the first time that an Arab leader had visited the country, and it was continuously broadcast live on TV. And the recent live broadcasting of events in Egypt seems to fall squarely under the theory Dayan and Katz proposed. But amidst all the discussions we’ve had about social media’s role in the uprising, it’s important also to think more broadly about how these events fit into a larger framework of media history.

To Shawn Powers, an assistant professor of global media at Georgia State University and an expert on Middle East affairs, the events in Egypt have captured our attention because they represent the story we love to see: “The story is the perfect American story. There is a clear evil-doer. There’s a clear person you want to remove from power. The images are provocative and as engaging as anything you’ve seen in recent history. There’s a whole mythology of it with a despotic dictator.” And the story only gets more compelling when journalists like Anderson Cooper get attacked — literally — ostensibly for bringing the story to the American public.

To Dayan and Katz, media events are not routine. As they argue, media events “intervene in the normal flow of broadcasting and our lives…Television events propose exceptional things to think about, to witness, and to do.” And in this case, Al Jazeera English and CNN have been providing us the images necessary to think of the unrest in Egypt as an historic moment.

But while some of those images were provided by TV, much of it has been unfolding elsewhere — and Powers uses the term “i-event” to describe the fact that many of the people following the events in Egypt have done so by streaming Al Jazeera English on their computers, or watching CNN International online.

Mainstream television came to the party only after a few other factors in the media ecology — namely, social media and online streaming — arrived. First, social media provided those already plugged into the networks the first signs of unrest. Social media was to some extent a way for people to organize in Egypt (though it played a much larger role, in that respect, in Tunisia), and it was a way to get the word about the unrest out to a wider audience. For those plugged into social media who were paying attention to global events — especially in those scanning news in the U.S. — the event began unfolding over the web. Americans began watching the coverage on Al Jazeera English over livestream — so much so that Al Jazeera’s web traffic rose 2,500 percent, with 1.6 million views in the US as of last Monday. (Almost 50 percent of the overall traffic to its web livestream has come from the U.S., Al Jazeera social media head Riyaad Minty told Justin.) Clamoring began to include Al Jazeera English as part of the regular cable package.

After that, CNN began covering the events in Egypt, as did MSNBC, with live coverage. CNN drew attention to coverage from Al Jazeera English and Egyptian state TV. Its own camera crews then came in for the story. And social media continued to play its role, with Al Jazeera English providing a regular Twitter feed of events (despite the Egyptian Internet shutdown). But as Mohammed el-Nawawy, a professor of communication at Queens University of Charlotte, noted, “Using Twitter and Facebook is not affecting people on the street — they don’t need it anymore. Social media instigated the people. The situation is now in the real world and not in the virtual world. That’s where the developments are.”

And by “the real world,” he’s talking about events that people can actually see unfolding on TV, not online.

Media events in 1992 had different characteristics than media events of the digital age. In the past, media events were characterized by news networks’ monopolistic coverage; now, though, media is much more segmented. Nonetheless, Katz’s theory is still robust for describing news that is happening live — and that is organized outside of the media.

It’s also being expanded by Egypt, where the “media event” extends far beyond television. The media ecology now involves a complex interplay between social media, streaming Internet, and mainstream media — all working together to create a much larger, more nuanced picture of the live broadcasting of history. And the events in Egypt, crucially, captured our imaginations even if the hold on TV was not monopolistic. As el-Nawawy put it, “This uprising is unprecedented in history. No one has seen it in this scale of millions of people going out on the street. This is something people are not used to seeing in such a context [the Arab world].”

Similarly, he noted, “For many Americans, this is shocking and unprecedented.” And it’s unprecedented for media coverage, as well. The combination of social media, Internet streaming, and mainstream coverage represents a shift from simple documentation to interactivity — and a new turn in how historic events can unfold.

Image by Sharif Hassan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 8, 2011, 2 p.m.
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