Historic key events are genuine events with historical importance. Four factors are important to consider in this regard. (1) Historic key events have a short and distinct duration. The event happens within a short time and it is clearly separated from later and earlier events. It is arguable whether wars and revolutions should be considered as historic key events; overall it seems best to regard them as chains of related historic key events (Wilke 1989). (2) Historic key events have a significant impact on later times. The historical dimensions of the political, social, economic, or cultural effects are sometimes obvious when the event happens, but at other times the importance of the event becomes clearer with the passing of time, when the significance of its effects can be evaluated differently. It is easier to regard political or economic events as key events than social or cultural events. (3) Historic key events are not primarily created for media attention. Their importance is independent of any media coverage. Even when some aspects of an event may have been planned in advance to attract media attention, its main purpose is not media effect. (4) Historic key events are ambiguous and subjective in many ways. Billy Wilder’s film One, Two, Three (1961) started with a quote that provides a perfect illustration of the ambiguities of historic key events and media key events: “On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation’s capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs #44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we’re dealing with – real shifty!” On the one hand, the mass media cover key events; on the other hand, media routines can be used for political or other purposes. The ambiguous status of a key event is due to the point of view. The above quotation illustrates that the importance of a given event may be valued very differently: some events achieve the status of a historic key event, while others remain simply key events in media coverage.
Characteristics Of Historic Key Events
Historic key events have to be distinguished clearly from media events or pseudo-events. A pseudo-event “is not spontaneous, but comes about because some one has planned, planted, or incited it . . . It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced . . . The question, ‘Is it real?’ is less important than, ‘Is it newsworthy?’ ” (Boorstin 1962, 11). A historic key event is sometimes almost the opposite; some of them did not attract media coverage at all. The Hitler–Stalin Agreement on the division of Poland was a key event of twentieth-century history in that it gave Hitler the opportunity to start his war. Nevertheless, it was not covered by the media and even at the Nuremberg Trial the Soviet Union denied its secret amendment.
However, the importance of media in modern society meants that most historic key events are subjected to media coverage. Under normal circumstances, the coverage of historic key events by the media is one indicator of the importance of the event in itself, but it is not the most important indicator. Media coverage simply indicates that the journalists consider a specific event to be relevant to their audience. For example, in 1996 a suicide bombing attack was covered over 72 hours nonstop on Israeli television. Television coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 lasted uninterrupted from November 22 to 25; it was the longest uninterrupted television coverage of an event until the events of 9/11. But not even in Israel is the suicide bombing of March 1996 recognized as being as important as JFK’s assassination or the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Because key events are for the most part mediated events, they lead to follow-up coverage of minor events by the media (Kepplinger & Habermeier 1995), for example, even small incidents involving airplanes attracted greater media attention after 9/11.
The status of an event as historic and key depends on its specific importance, which is relative not absolute. For example, in Egypt’s modern history the assassination of Anwar El Sadat in 1981 was a key event, but its status as a key event in modern history in general may be doubted even though the international media covered the assassination broadly. Most of the historic key events of a particular nation are important for the nation’s history but not necessarily for other nations.
The status of a key event also is related to the bias of the significant effects of the event in history. Many key events have positive effects for one interest group but create negative effects for others. The bias of the media coverage depends on the varying points of view. For instance, that Sadat (together with Menachem Begin) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (in advance) for his treaty with Israel in 1979 was was commented on very positively by the press in Egypt, Israel, and in the west, but extremely harshly in Syria’s Al Baath (“The Resurrection”), and in many Arab countries and in the east European communist press.
The Role Of Symbolism
Historic key events become emblematic by way of the attribution of importance to them, which may be biased, and media coverage plays an important part in forging the symbolism. The concentration of the distinct event in a short historic moment at a given place makes both media coverage and forging the symbol easy. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which led to World War I, was the symbolic end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. The murder of JFK marked the end of the American dream of “Camelot” in 1963. The raising and tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and 1989 marked the climax and the end of the Cold War in 1961 and 1989 respectively. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 upon the symbols of America’s strength started the worldwide “war on terror” in 2001. Some key events were symbolic acts in themselves: in 1952 the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II began a Europe-wide taste for television spectacles. Media coverage does overload some “historic” key events with symbolic weight. Whether they are really significant for the future may not yet be clear. The landing on the moon in 1969 serves as an example: it may be that in the distant future, when interplanetary space travel has become routine, man’s landing on the moon will be seen as the first important step toward other worlds, but so far the landing on the moon has not yet made any significant impact on life on earth. Other events were placed center-stage and overloaded with symbolism, for example, Chamberlain’s return from the Munich negotiations in 1938: later “Munich” came to symbolize the opposite, not lasting peace but political weakness that led to war.
The most impressive key event of recent years, the terrorist attacks of September 11, confounds the rule that every historic key event is a genuine event. The symbolic nature of the attacks underlines its character as a media event: the Twin Towers as a symbol of US high finance, the Pentagon of its military strength, and the Capitol or White House of its political system indicate that 9/11 was arranged for the media. The attacks on America’s symbols may not have been so choreographed in former times, when there were no TV networks or video cameras. If the terrorists had reckoned on this they had calculated on the routines of media coverage precisely. There is a time delay of a quarter of an hour between the impact of the first plane on the north tower of the World Trade Center and the impact of the second plane on the south tower: even if no TV cameras had covered the first impact the terrorists may have reckoned on quick and instant media reaction to capture the second impact, and they were right. The second plane crash was filmed live by many TV cameras in close-up and the pictures were broadcast all over the world.
Trends In Media Coverage
In history media coverage of key events has followed some general trends. (1) The time delay between event and media coverage has been reduced dramatically. (2) Media involvement in historic key event coverage has expanded. (3) The impact of the news media’s coverage of key events on the audience has increased. (4) Key events are illustrated with the most impressive material. All these trends are related to changes in the media system itself.
The media coverage of key events has progressively decreased to virtually zero time delay. At the beginning of the history of mass media, in early modern times, key events were covered with a delay of weeks or even a month. At the beginning of the twentieth century key events were covered by the next day or even within the same day. After 1920 foreseeable events were covered with little time delay. These days even the news of unforeseen events is disseminated throughout the world within minutes, as for example the events of 9/11 or the London bombings of July 7, 2005. Improvements in media infrastructure are the main cause of this trend.
At the beginning of early modern times most of the traffic on land and sea did not have a time schedule. Regular mail delivery was established as early as the sixteenth century on the main routes such as Amsterdam to Venice. These mail delivery systems expanded in the following centuries, and the frequency and speed of delivery improved. In the nineteenth century in many countries stage coaches ran according to schedules, and further improvements came with the development of the railway. The building of railroads after 1825 did not merely improve the speed of travel but (from the following decade) was also connected with the construction of telegraph lines: the new communication device helped to coordinate its schedule. Stockbrokers exchanged news of prices and news agencies spread news by the telegraph from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.
Starting in the 1920s radio communication by air wave enabled live reporting. Probably the first live report was transmitted even before regular radio stations were on air, and it was a false report: “All Titanic’s passengers safe,” in 1912. In the last third of the twentieth century multiplication of the channels intensified communication: satellites, cable and digital multiplexing wove a dense information network nearly all over the world. Today the infrastructure comprises not only the mass media but, due to the technological conversion, every mobile phone or video camera in private hands may become part of the infrastructure at any key event. The constant improvements have reached a point where no further minimization of time delay is possible.
Increasing Involvement Of The Media In Key Events
A second trend the expansion of media coverage of historic key events. In general, the events are covered by all existing media, where up till the nineteenth century the news of events was disseminated by all kinds of press reporting. Regular newspapers and nonperiodical broadsheets, magazines with or without pictures, chronicles and books covered major events like the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and of Louis XVI in 1793. In 1914 the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was covered by all kinds of press, but also by newsreels. In the 1920s and 1930s live radio reporting was added. When Neville Chamberlain returned to London after the notorious Munich Conference, he delivered his famous speech on “Peace for our time” into radio microphones and waved the Munich Agreement in front of the newsreel cameras. In 1960s press, newsreel, radio, and the new television media spread the news of President Kennedy’s assassination and the landing on the moon around the world. While new media took over the the actual coverage the older media switched to background coverage and specialized in “inside information” to deepen the audiences’ understanding of the event.
Any major event provides the public with special issues of newspaper or television magazines. The events of 9/11 provide an example of the broad approach of media coverage. After the first plane crash TV networks all over the world switched to live reporting. In Germany the highly respected public broadcasting system lost much ground to the private RTL station which went on air with the news within minutes and reported live for the rest of the day. The attacks were the main theme in the press and on television for nearly a month. But even very old media like books could be written and published quickly. Some of these did no more than reproduce rumors circulating on the Internet. The Internet itself became a major source of information, for example for those looking for missing relatives, but also for misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Increasing Effect Of Media Coverage
The third trend is related to the second: media coverage has become more impressive, affecting and emotional. Due to technological progress, the mass media’s capacity to address the human senses has improved. The press has traditionally used the written word to cover events, but it has also covered historic key events with pictures. These were printed using woodcuts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and high-quality copper plates and steel engravings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (e.g., events like the burning of Magdeburg in 1631 and the Lisbon earthquake in 1755). The reproduction of pictures became cheaper with lithography and wood engravings in the nineteenth century.
At the end of the nineteenth century Meisenbach’s autotype enabled photographs to be reproduced. Nevertheless, the poor quality of photographs and of their reproduction meant that many events continued to be illustrated by highly dramatic lithographs or engravings even at the end of the nineteenth century and on the eve of World War I, for example, in coverage of the explosion of the USS Maine covered by the Hearst papers in 1899 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. Since the end of the nineteenth century historic key events were also captured on film. Because of the lack of authentic pictures sometimes faked material was used in news coverage. For example, Pathe’s newsreel on the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 illustrated the battles with ship models. As media technology improved, sound was eventually added: Fox Movietone Newsreel first combined picture and sound coverage of the news in 1927.
The Role Of Pictures And Sound Bites
A fourth and more recent tendency is the media’s reduction of a historic key event to its most impressive picture or sound bites. Examples are Winston Churchill’s “we shall never surrender” and “blood, toil, tears and sweat” (1940); pictures of the assassination of JFK (1963); pictures and sound bites of Neil Armstrong’s first “small step” on the moon’s surface; and the the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center. These and other examples are reproduced by the media so often that they begin to take on a life of their own. The use of the same pictures and sound bites depends on media routines and the expectation of the public.
The media need examples with great symbolic value and aims to depict events with the most impressive material. The public, captivated by such routines, gets so used to these examples that it constructs a direct connection between the historic key event and the most widely used coverage material. Some key events do not yield such impressive material because no media was present or because the event itself was very abstract. Media routines then tend to illustrate the event with material that has a connection not with the incident but with its consequences; for example, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 did not provide as impressive a photograph as long rows of unemployed workers.
Further Research And Methodology
At present the principal methodology employed in research in historic key event coverage is content analysis, which has been used to study isolated events . But because key events are a combined result of media coverage, impressive symbolism, and audience reception, this kind of approach cannot cover all aspects of the field. Content analysis may be suitable for examining the content of media coverage, but it does not explain the motives of the communicators.
Therefore, historic key event research should take into account a combination of content analysis, reception research, media structure analysis, and historical criticism – a method developed by historians from Leopold von Ranke, Gustav Droysen, and others. Historical criticism takes into account, among other things, the context, meaning, social background, and personality of communicators, and considers that very important historical sources are always missing, especially when intentional communication processes are involved. For example, when the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck launched a propaganda machinery in 1882 a top-ranking bureaucrat wanted to know whether he had to preserve receipts of the money he had spent, Bismarck’s answer was “Definitely not.”
Research also lacks long-range diagnostics, which would be very helpful in attempts to define historic key events, which, moreover, change over time and differ between one nation’s history and another’s. Furthermore, research lacks international comparison, whose main obstacle is probably the lack of knowledge of many different languages. It is clear that this research program is very ambitious.
- Boorstin, D. J. (1962). The image; or, What happened to the American dream. New York: Atheneum.
- Couldry, N. (2003). Media rituals: A critical approach. London and New York: Routledge.
- Emery, M., Emery, E., & Roberts, N. L. (2000). The press and America: An interpretative history of the mass media, 9th edn. Harlow: Pearson Education.
- Kepplinger, H. M., & Habermeier, J. (1995). The impact of key events on the presentation of reality. European Journal of Communication, 10(3), 371–390.
- Wilke, J. (1984). Nachrichtenauswahl und Medienrealität in vier Jahrhunderten: Eine Modellstudie zur Verbindung von historischer und empirischer Publizistikwissenschaft. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.
- Wilke, J. (1989). Geschichte als Kommunikationsereignis: Der Beitrag der Massenkommunikation beim Zustandekommen historischer Ereignisse. In M. Kaase & W. Schulz (eds.), Massenkommunikation: Theorien, Methoden, Befunde. Opladen: Westdeutscher, pp. 57–71.