Second Media Analysis Article by Andriana Simos (z5061608, F10A)
In the wake of the deaths of four people on Dreamworld’s Thunder River Rapids Ride, media attention has turned to Dreamworld’s owner, Ardent Leisure. Over the past few days, the Australian mainstream media has arguably represented the handling of the situation as a total public relations disaster after Ardent’s chief executive, Deborah Thomas, announced that she was yet to talk to the victims’ families two days after the event. In addition to this, many of the articles blasted Thomas after it was made public that she would still receive her $840 000 performance bonus despite the fatal accident at the Gold Coast theme park.
With all this in mind, the first part of this article will provide a brief background of the deadly accident before focusing on a close analysis of both objective and subjective news reports on the issue. These include: Antoinette Lattouf’s piece ‘Dreamworld Deaths: can the company’s leaders save the now-maligned theme park?,’ and Rachel Smalley’s article ‘Dreamworld horror show: ‘crisis management at its worst’,’ Additionally, the article will also look at Darvall and Geary’s article ‘Dreamworld boss’ $4MILLION shelter from the storm,’ as well as Keane’s piece ‘Why should Dreamworld owner’s boss keep her $800 000 bonus? Because she earned it.’ Therefore, by analysing all these, the various representations of Deborah Thomas will be explored and it will become clear that in most articles, the readers are attitudinally positioned through words and images to take a negative view of how she dealt with the tragedy.
The Dreamworld accident will forever be remembered as a “family tragedy” after four people on the Rapids Ride were killed when their raft flipped over backwards into a wooden conveyor belt, crushing them underneath. Canberra mother Kate Goodchild, her brother Luke Dorsett, his partner Roozi Araghi and Sydney mother Cindy Low, were later identified as the victims.
However, before the proper “mourning period” could begin, the Australian media turned their attention to Ardent Leisure’s shocking announcement that they would still be rewarding Deborah Thomas with her “performance bonus of $840 000.” What followed was public and media criticism to the point whereby, Thomas later backtracked and announced that she would donate $167 500 of her cash bonus to the Australian Red Cross. The well-renowned charity would then distribute the money to those affected by Tuesday’s tragedy including the daughters of Kate Goodchild.
Now, the question here is whether Thomas willingly donated her bonus in the wake of the tragedy, or whether she was influenced by the media’s criticism in the days following the accident?
In order to provide an answer to this question in some way, there will now be an analysis of articles from the Sydney Morning Herald, the Daily Telegraph, the New Zealand Herald, the Daily Mail and ABC News. These articles will reveal the various representations of Thomas and Ardent Leisure and we will then be able to determine whether any of this media coverage may have influenced her decision to donate part of her cash bonus.
Let us start with Antoinette Lattouf’s piece, ‘Dreamworld Deaths: can the company’s leaders save the now-maligned theme park?’ on ABC’s news website (28 October 2016). This analysis opinion piece is an interesting example of the way “subjective” views journalism articles use both explicit and implicit language in order to position the readers to form a negative view of Deborah Thomas and Ardent Leisure.
The articles opening sentence, otherwise known as the lead, gives readers an insight into Lattouf’s central claim and argument right from the very beginning. She writes:
“Ardent Leisure Group’s biggest hurdle is rebuilding the public’s trust in Australia’s biggest theme park after four people were killed at Dreamworld on Tuesday.”
The choice of words such as “biggest hurdle” and “rebuilding the public’s trust,” work under the assumption that the public have lost faith in Dreamworld and as a result, it is Ardent’s job to regain this trust. However, it is here where Lattouf’s article becomes more ironic. This is because although she does begin the article by describing the “hurdle” faced by Ardent Leisure, she follows on from this by revealing the idea that they actually handled the “hurdle” unprofessionally. This is evident as she states:
“And at the helm of this disaster is the company’s CEO and chairman- the two high-profiled media figures boasting more than 60 years’ experience between them.
“Yet paradoxically, the fallout from the country’s worst theme park incident since 1979 has been a public relations disaster.”
The juxtaposition between Deborah Thomas’ “60 years’ of experience” in the media and how the tragedy became “a public relations disaster,” is a persuasive technique used by Lattouf in order to frame Thomas a certain way. In fact, the reference to Thomas’ experience with the media gives off the impression that she should be media and tech-savvy, as well as experienced in handling Ardent’s “biggest hurdle.” However, this becomes ironic as although Lattouf describes Thomas’ media experience and skills as given character attributes, she then disputes her own assumptions by stating that the public relations aspect of the tragedy was actually handled poorly. In fact, further down in her article, Lattouf demonstrates how Thomas was facing condemnation for failing to contact the victims’ families straight away and for “still” receiving a performance bonus of up to $840 000. As a result, it is clear that Lattouf is implicitly implying that although Thomas is an experienced media personality, this does not mean that all her skills were relevant or utilised efficiently when dealing with the Dreamworld “family tragedy.” Thus, through her choice of words and the juxtaposition, it is clear that the readers are positioned to take a negative view of Thomas as a supposedly experienced media personality who failed to produce results.
In fact, this negative view of the way the situation was handled is widely spread across many articles published by the Australian mainstream media. One specific example which demonstrates this idea, is an “objective” news journalism item by Emma Reynolds (from news.com.au) entitled ‘‘We thought we were doing the right thing’: Ardent CEO.’ Her choice of the world “finally” in:
“She finally visited the Gold Coast theme park…”
and the direct quote by the victim’s brother, Mr Simon Araghi, who said:
“I finally got a call… but… I would have preferred the call a lot earlier,”
have been selectively included by Reynolds. This is evident as the words and quote have negative connotations attached to them and the evaluations are with respect to Thomas’ competence. Specifically, these extracts seem to suggest that Thomas’ delay in contacting the victims’ families and in visiting Dreamworld reveals her incompetence and inexperience. Consequently, although Reynolds has conveyed this evaluation indirectly through implication and the words of quoted sources, it is still clear that the readers are positioned to take a negative view of Thomas’ actions.
Moreover, another example of the calculated choice of words to subtly imply a negative opinion of Thomas can be found in Rachel Olding and Felicity Caldwell’s Sydney Morning Herald article ‘Dreamworld accident: Theme parks’ future ‘in doubt’ after four deaths.’ The word “finally” is utilised again in:
“She was asked whether she had finally reached out to the families of the victims following a fiery press conference on Thursday in which the mother of two victims disputed her claim they had made contact.”
This word choice also has a negative undertone as it suggests that she had left it too late to contact the victims’ families and people were getting impatient to know if she “finally” had.
Furthermore, now that the writers have established that the Dreamworld tragedy was a public relations disaster, we come to the most interesting and common feature of commentary on this issue: the personal attack on Thomas as she deals with the aftermath of the announcement that she would likely receive a performance bonus just days after the Dreamworld tragedy.
Let us turn to Rachel Smalley’s, ‘Dreamworld horror show: ‘crisis management at its worst’,’ which is an opinion piece published in The New Zealand Herald. This piece is a more “subjective” views journalism piece and as a result, it differs from those by Reynolds, Olding and Caldwell. In fact, although Smalley also positions the readers to view Thomas negatively, she does this explicitly rather than implicitly.
This is particularly evident through the mixture of rhetorical questions and ironic tone in:
“Why on earth would Dreamworld speak to the media about the tragedy, before speaking to the families who’d lost loved ones in such horrific circumstances? Thomas said she’d had some difficulty locating contact details. Just extraordinary. And then the conversation switched to her bonus.”
The truncated sentence in “just extraordinary,” is a persuasive mechanism which carries a tone of irony and disgust with it. This ironic tone explicitly positions the reader to once again view the way Thomas responded to the tragic deaths in a negative way. In addition to this, the rhetorical question implies a particular behaviour which is expected of Thomas- one where she should have spoken to the victims’ families before contacting the media. In fact, as Smalley does not argue for this particular behaviour through any appeal to facts or statistics, it is clear that she is treating it as a given and universally accepted way of dealing with a tragedy such as Dreamworld’s. In this way, if Smalley’s readers do take her evaluation of Thomas’ actions for granted, then she effectively has persuaded them to think negatively about her behaviour.
Further to this, Smalley’s choice of words and phrases also provide a not so favourable evaluation of Thomas. Specifically, the use of negative adjectives in comments such as: “this is crisis management at its worst,” “handled this appallingly,” and “failed to convey just how serious the situation is,” position the readers to view the crisis management unfavourably. This is because Smalley has deliberately chosen to make an explicit evaluation of the ethics surrounding the tragedy’s management, which makes it difficult for her readers to form their own opinion.
Now, although this continuous use of negative adjectives is not supported by any justification, Smalley’s article does have a video of the media conference attached. This video focuses on the part where Thomas says that “now is not the right time to talk about transactions,” whilst the rest of the conference has been edited out. By doing this, Smalley provides some form of justification for her article. Particularly, a sense of irony is attached to Thomas’ statement as it was Ardent Leisure’s decision to announce her performance bonus at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) and then suddenly she seems reluctant to talk about it. Therefore, it becomes clear that Smalley chose this specific extract from the conference to subtly characterise Thomas as a hypocrite who plans the announcement of her own bonus and then is adamant to ignore the criticism she receives for it. Smalley then leaves this representation open for her readers and viewers to infer their own negative attitudinal opinions about Thomas’ actions.
In addition, another example which uses a similar video as a representation of Thomas’ actions and comments at the AGM is Rachel Olding’s SMH article ‘Dreamworld accident: Ardent Leisure chief executive Deborah Thomas donates bonus to Red Cross.’ Although the article itself is more “objective,” it is interesting to see that Olding has also used a video which has a negative undertone about Thomas. Thus, it is clear that although some media coverage operates “objectively” and the other “subjectively,” the use of videos and graphics are an effective way to achieve similar attitudinal outcomes.
To demonstrate this further, let us also take a closer look at an “objective” news journalism piece by Kate Darvall and Belinda Grant Geary which was published in the Daily Mail. It was entitled: ‘Dreamworld boss’ $4MILLION shelter from the storm: Incredible waterfront penthouse of Deborah Thomas- as she comes under fire for ‘$800k bonus’.’
This headline is a clever persuasive mechanism used by the writers in order to implicitly reveal their standpoint from the very beginning. In fact, the capitalisation of “$4MILLION” and the play on words where Thomas is sheltered by “the storm” she created, effectively creates an idea of her rich and extravagant lifestyle. These attributes are then carried throughout the article with continuous references to her wealth and penthouse. This is evident here:
“Dreamworld boss Deborah Thomas came under fire on Thursday over the theme parks handling of the Thunder River Rapids tragedy- but at least she has somewhere beautiful to go and escape the storm.”
“Thomas, 60, owns a $4 million penthouse apartment in perhaps Australia’s most exclusive harbour-front suburb of Point Piper.”
By focusing on Thomas’ wealth, the authors have chosen a very different angle to all the other articles mentioned above. However, it must be noted that this angle still effectively represents Thomas in a negative light as she is characterised as unconcerned with the tragedy. In fact, this unconcerned attitude is particularly evident as the writers add the sarcastic comment- “but at least she has somewhere beautiful to go and escape the storm.” Therefore, although this article is supposedly an “objective” news report, the inclusion of this comment and the description of her “penthouse apartment,” is an implicit evaluation of Thomas’ characteristics. This then results in an attitudinal positioning of the readers, whereby, they accept these attributes of wealth as a given, leading them to conclude that Thomas is actually more concerned with her personal wealth than the death of four people.
This representation of Thomas’ wealth is also reflected in one of the article’s accompanying photos.
In this almost full-length shot, Deborah Thomas is the main focus or focal point of the image. She is wearing a regal dress, covered in expensive-looking jewellery and a turban coated in diamonds and beading. In addition, the accompanying caption describes how she receives “a total salary package of more than $1.3 million” as a chief executive at Ardent Leisure. As a result, the image clearly compliments the article’s main angle as the readers are forced to look at actual visual evidence of Thomas’ wealth.
Last but not least, an analysis of Anthony Keane’s article, ‘Why should Dreamworld owner’s boss keep her $800 000 bonus? Because she earned it,’ also provides some insightful representations of Thomas. The opinion piece, published in The Daily Telegraph, differs from the others as Thomas is characterised in a positive way through Keane’s principle claim that Thomas “earned” her bonus. This is further emphasised through his appeal to comparison in:
“Asking Deborah Thomas, the chief executive of Dreamworld owner Ardent Leisure Group, to give up her nearly $850 000 performance bonus in the wake of this theme park’s tragedy is like asking any one of us to hand back the wages we received last year.”
and the appeal to authority and statistics in:
“As Ardent chairman Neil Balnaves pointed out today, the performance bonus was based on the company’s results for the previous financial year. That was a year in which revenue rose 16 per cent and operating profit rose almost 19 per cent.”
Although these claims may not be easily accepted by readers as they go against the majority of media coverage available on the issue, Keane does provide some new information which the other articles analysed above failed to provide. Particularly, through the use of facts, Keane describes how although holding the AGM and announcing the bonus “just two days after the tragedy was unfortunate timing,” the company was actually “legally bound to hold it.” Therefore, by referring to this in his article, Keane has provided his readers with a more positive evaluation of Thomas’ behaviour as she was actually forced to hold the AGM and announce her bonus whether she wanted to or not.
Furthermore, Keane’s choice of video is also quite insightful. Similar to Smalley’s opinion piece, Keane chose to attach an extract of the media conference where Thomas says that “it was not really the time to be discussing” her bonus.
Although these two videos are almost identical, in the context of the articles themselves, the meanings attached to them are very different. As mentioned, Thomas is represented as a hypocrite in the video attached to Smalley’s article. Contrastingly, the video used by Keane has more positive attributes attached to it where Thomas’ intent to avoid the questions about her bonus actually comes across as compassion- she would rather be talking about the victims than an AGM which she was forced to take part in by law. Thus, it becomes clear that videos are another persuasive mechanism which can position a reader in a certain way, particularly if they subscribe to the argument being put forward by the writer.
To conclude, a comparison of media materials relating to the Dreamworld “family tragedy,” has made it clear that most people were furious at the way in which Deborah Thomas handled the situation. Although Keane’s article does give a positive evaluation of the situation, this is clearly overshadowed by the more frequently negative representations of Deborah and her attitude towards the event. Therefore, it is clear that in the days following the accident, most representations of Thomas could be classified as “negative” and in some cases, a personal attack on her wealth and extravagant lifestyle. Whether these evaluations then influenced Thomas’ decision to donate part of her cash bonus is hard to determine, however, it could be argued that this negative media coverage did play a part in her decision.
- Darvall, K and Geary, BG 2016, ‘Dreamworld boss’ $4MILLION shelter from the storm: Incredible waterfront penthouse of Deborah Thomas- as she comes under fire for ‘$800k bonus’’, The Daily Mail, 27 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3877030/Dreamworld-CEO-Deborah-Thomas-4-million-penthouse-Sydney-s-waterfront-revealed.html>
- Keane, A 2016, ‘Why should Dreamworld owner’s boss keep her $800 000 bonus? Because she earned it’, The Daily Telegraph, 27 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/rendezview/why-should-dreamworld-owners-boss-keep-her-800k-bonus-she-earned-it/news-story/3656b7039435ea5866206c96ff878aba>
- Lattouf, A 2016, ‘Dreamworld Deaths: can the company’s leaders save the now-maligned theme park?’, ABC, 28 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-28/dreamworld-deaths:-can-leaders-save-the-now-maligned-theme-park/7975370?section=analysis>
- Olding, R 2016, ‘Dreamworld accident: Ardent Leisure chief executive Deborah Thomas donates bonus to Red Cross’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/national/dreamworld-accident-ardent-leisure-chief-executive-deborah-thomas-donates-bonus-to-red-cross-20161027-gscgl4.html>
- Olding, R and Caldwell, F 2016, ‘Dreamworld accident: Theme parks’ future ‘in doubt’ after four deaths’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/queensland/dreamworld-accident-theme-parks-future-likely-in-doubt-after-four-deaths-20161028-gsdbf0>
- Reynolds, E 2016, ‘‘We thought we were doing the right thing’: Ardent CEO’,com.au, 28 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.news.com.au/national/queensland/news/we-thought-we-were-doing-the-right-thing-dreamworld-ceo/news-story/9b01ad89f5eeacca9c4db3aa94ba006e>
- Smalley, R 2016, ‘Dreamworld horror show: ‘crisis management at its worst’’, The New Zealand Herald, 28 October, accessed 29 October 2016, <http://www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=11737490>