Mediated Mourning

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

Don’t get me wrong. I did feel sad when I found out the King of Pop had passed away. I remember my sister and I singing along to his Best Of album for hours straight, or numerous attempted moon walks after a few beers or so (no, none of this is on Youtube… at least I hope not).

Following the news in the days after his death, I was continuously assured that I wasn’t alone in my grief. Rather, the entire world was mourning with me. If the media’s job is to tell me what’s going on around the world, then there wasn’t anything else going on at all. In that sense, MJ’s death is the best thing that could have happened to the regime in Iran.

We are currently witnessing a so-called “media event” – something nearly everybody in society (or nowadays in the world?) is following through the mass media – or maybe has to follow because there isn’t anything else on TV when they occur. There was no escaping Billie Jean when I drove home from Berlin this week.

I always thought the term “media event” is a strange one. It seems to imply that there are ordinary events, and then there are “media events”, which are somehow really, really important for everyone. But who says so? And are they really?

Supply, Demand

Of course, it’s not always easy to judge whether something qualifies as a media event or not. For me, maybe half a dozen come to mind for the last ten years or so (9/11, Diana’s funeral, Obama’s inauguration, etc.). However, if one carefully watches news programs (especially U.S. and tabloid-like ones), you quickly get the idea that they try to sell you some kind of media event all the time. Everything is “Breaking News”.

Hadley Freeman from The Guardian puts it very eloquently:

The 24-hour news culture and the explosion of the gossip magazine industry – both of which require either constant change or, more commonly, heightened emotion, combined with a fragmented media and the diminished importance of religion in most people’s lives – have made the idea of a collectively shared Big Moment more desired than ever (…).

He points out both the supply side and the demand side of media events, or “Big Moments”, as he calls them. On the supply side, the news industry loves Big Moments because they love the revenues viewers they attract. So they are more than happy to blow anything out of proportion that is remotely scandalous or newsworthy.

But maybe we, the audience, love media events as well. Indeed, we may need them as a society to maintain a sense of collectivity and integration. That’s just a fancy way of saying that it somehow makes us feel at home in society when everybody else is mourning too. Funerals bring families back together. This funeral is a massive media spectacle, but with similar social effects.

John Rash from AdvertisingAge reminisces about the power of Michael Jackson to bring people together, already long before his death. We all have our Michael Jackson memories (see mine above). Is there any artist or band today that may even dream about selling 50 million copies of a physical (!) record? Probably not. And why not? Because the market for music, news, and culture in general, is fragmented and individualized (think iPod). Rash puts it most polemically

[M]aybe, deep down, with shared cultural experiences also expiring, we’re also mourning because we miss each other.

“Am I part of the cure…?”

So everybody’s happy, right? The news industry attracts the viewers it needs and the audiences celebrate their societal reunion. We may well leave it at that. Or we can go get another coffee and use this Sunday morning to think about two more issues. Which is what I did.

Who decides whether something qualifies as a media event, i.e. as something everybody has to watch and that is worth changing the program or front page for?

9/11 was an obvious one. Obama was almost as obvious. He was elected American President. Still, his moment was somehow bigger that those of previous presidents. Lady Diana? Fair enough, she was Princess Diana and married to Charles. But that doesn’t really explain why her death was one of the biggest media events in recent years. Finally Michael. Although he was enormously talented and recorded some great music, we may still wonder where his big moment came from.

Here’s one explanation. Media events are events involving individuals/groups/objects/things that everybody in society can relate to, probably in some highly emotional way. And why can everybody relate to these things? Because they’ve been in the media all the time!

Michael was born through the media and lived through the media right until his death. That’s how we know him, that’s why we are united in his death. Obama’s moment was bigger, because he created more media attention than any president before him. Diana’s media event was what it was because every second of her life had been covered in celebrity magazines.

In other words, the news industry is responsible for the build-up of media events, it doesn’t just cover them when they take place. And it is guilty in a more general sense as well. Enabled by technology, it drives social fragmentation by catering to every single individual taste. We can use the media to construct our own personalized and customized world. Paradoxically, this makes the news industry and its media events both a disease and part of the cure.

A final note to all those out there who cannot relate to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. I’m sorry that you were completely forgotten for about two days or so. The news didn’t mention you and so you didn’t exist for a while. I’m even more sorry that everybody on TV probably made you feel really bad for not relating to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. That’s another thing about media events. Even if you never thought you cared about something – when it’s on TV 24/7, you think it’s time that you do.

2 responses to “Mediated Mourning

  1. Should I feel totally guilty because I enjoyed every second of the coverage? I admit, some of it was absurd, but then I enjoyed the criticism of the coverage too! I think this all-time-consuming stories show that the media, but humans in general, have really short-attention spans. If you look back in history I think this always proves fatal.

  2. Diana died on 1997, why do I remember? Because it was a huge thing even in Chile! Well, that was the kind of media events that later you will say ‘where I was when that happened’ as for 9/11 and Jackson. Media –if you have the access- give us a first row seat… is it in this case for mourning? Not sure yet. Anyway, De Zengotita in ‘Mediated’ has a good argument about it. He says that through media, reality and its representation are mixed and shape the lives of the audience in an unprecedented way, allowing for external and distant events to be experienced as personal giving us what he call the ‘God’s eye view’ (does it ring any bells?) Lady Di’s funeral was followed for of 1.2 billion viewers around the planet, how many will follow Michael Jackson’s? For sure we will know tomorrow morning in the global coverage(believe me, they are counting!)

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