The terms “pseudo-event” and “media event” refer to the phenomenon that in modern societies many events are created with the sole aim of getting media coverage, or rather that events are staged in a way that lends itself to media coverage.
Boorstin (1961) created the term “pseudo-event”. He sees pseudo-events as “synthetic news.” They do not occur spontaneously but are planned mainly for the purpose of getting media coverage. Most pseudo-events are basically strategic communication and public relations exercises. Press conferences are a typical example of pseudo-events. Boorstin distinguishes pseudo-events from spontaneous events. Spontaneous (or “genuine”) events are never, or hardly ever, influenced by the mass media. However, while the media do not in any way influence the structure of genuine events, such events may nevertheless be newsworthy and highly relevant for media reporting. Ecological disasters or crime are typical examples of genuine events.
Pseudo-events are staged to attract media attention. A media-friendly design is therefore one of the most important aspects of pseudo-event planning. As a result, pseudo-events differ from genuine events in several respects. Pseudo-events are expected or announced in advance so that the media can prepare for reporting. The timing and duration of a pseudo-event follows the rhythm of mass media coverage. The pseudo-event basically has to be designed according to the media’s selection criteria. As the event itself often lacks newsworthiness, it has to be artificially enhanced to make it more interesting. This can be done by involving celebrities or by adding dramatic effects to the announcement or presentation of the event.
Pseudo-events serve a purpose. They aim at promoting specific interests and needs. Lobbies try to attract attention to their interests or bring about a certain atmosphere through staging such events. In this way political candidates during election campaigns often arrange pseudo-events to convey a feeling of confidence in winning to their supporters. Campaign speeches and televised debates are typical examples of pseudoevents. For the media this raises the question of what the underlying purpose of these events is. The manner in which the media report on the intended effect in their coverage depends mainly on the importance attached to such events. Routine coverage is more likely to contain no comment on the aims of the event. However, when the event is of more importance then it is quite likely that the media will not only cover the event but also engage in a “meta-coverage” of its purposes and the reasons behind it.
Pseudo-events are not the only events that are staged with an eye to getting media coverage. It is often the case that events that would occur independently of the mass media are heavily influenced by the desired media coverage. Big sports events, political party conventions, and big trade fairs are examples of these media-driven events. Dayan and Katz (1996) differentiate between “media events” and “news events.” News events are events that cannot be foreseen but are nevertheless reported live and are extremely newsworthy. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attack in Manhattan, for example, was a typical news event. It was unforeseeable, but the media was reporting live within a very short time.
Media events are very newsworthy as well, but typically have a ceremonious character. They are subject to media-related staging, to a mise-en-scène by the media for the viewers, to the telling of a story. The main purpose is to facilitate virtual participation in the events on screen. A media event in itself has a high social relevance and a festive character. The media intensify this festive character and through live coverage make it available to a wide audience around the world. Events such as political summit meetings, the Academy Awards in Hollywood, or the Olympic Games are typical media events. They are predictable for the media and are staged to gain the highest possible media interest. A characteristic of such events is the ceremonial flair gained by rituals such as signing political treaties, hoisting up national flags and singing national anthems, or introducing award winners with the renowned phrase “And the Oscar goes to . . .” Media events are increasingly used for managing international political relations.
The concepts of pseudo-events and media events imply a presumption about mass media effects on society. The mere fact that media exist and might report certain events already changes these events and thus affects our social reality. This is the case if political or other actors embroider events and make them more attractive for the media in order to get better media coverage. Moreover, many events are created for the sole purpose of attracting media attention. Thus the media themselves, just by offering the possibility of publicizing events, set in motion processes resulting in social changes. Although pseudo-events and media events are designed to reach a wide audience, the social effects they are producing are not conditional on the audience’s media contact or reception of media messages.
- Boorstin, D. J. (1961). The image, or, what happened to the American dream. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
- Dayan, D., & Katz, E. (1996). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Nimmo, D., & Combs, J. E. (1983). Mediated political realities. New York: Longman.