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No longer anonymous : surviving trauma in the media spotlight

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Reynolds, FE 2020 , 'No longer anonymous : surviving trauma in the media spotlight', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

The term ‘accidental celebrity’ entered the Australian academic lexicon in 2000 as a way of describing ordinary people who become publicly well-known following a high-profile news event. Among this group are survivors of an unanticipated traumatic experience who are pursued by journalists competing for witness accounts. The media spotlight on the survivors’ private lives grows so intense and for such a prolonged period that they are transformed into celebrities. Although the notion of accidental celebrity has been adopted in subsequent international studies, little consideration has been given to the role individuals play in changing their status.
The aim of this practice-led project is to explore how prominent survivors may exercise agency in interactions with media. Underpinning the research is the structuration theory of British sociologist Anthony Giddens (1984), who argues that people are not powerless in relations with others but have the capability to think and act for themselves. Data is drawn from semi-structured interviews with 14 Australians who could be considered accidental celebrities. Each was a central figure in one of 11 high-profile news events—between the 1980 death of baby Azaria Chamberlain, taken from a Northern Territory desert campsite by a dingo, and the 2006 rescue of two Tasmanian gold miners, trapped underground at Beaconsfield for two weeks following a rockfall.
The perspectives of these individuals are brought together for the first time in order to provide insight into the involvement of survivors in the creation of news and other media content, from being regarded by journalists as newsworthy to represented as celebrities and treated as commodities. By analysing the survivors’ actions, this study finds they were never entirely constrained by institutionalised practices. The investigation of individual agency builds on two decades of research by Australian cultural studies academic Graeme Turner on the production of celebrity, which emphasises the institutional power of media. Turner, along with Frances Bonner and P. David Marshall (2000), coined the term accidental celebrity in their influential book Fame Games.
The original manuscript Accidental Celebrity documents the survivors’ contacts with media and thoughts about their public profile, incorporating secondary material in the form of print articles to illustrate how their behaviour was reported. The capability of individuals to influence media is examined in the accompanying exegesis, which identifies six categories of action in a Taxonomy of Accidental Celebrity Agency. They are recognised as choosing to tolerate attention, moderate behaviour, initiate contact, cooperate on content, delegate to a third party and dictate the terms of involvement. By applying this new framework to the survivors’ accounts, the different ways they seek to control their interactions with media are analysed.
The project, as a whole, extends academic research largely centred on journalistic practices and celebrity representation, to produce an explanation of actual behaviour, social experience and the ways ordinary people change their circumstances. It reveals how high-profile trauma survivors may act as free-willed individuals in relations with media, and the potential consequences of attempting to exert control. In doing so, the work offers a new, more nuanced and considered understanding of accidental celebrity.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Reynolds, FE
Keywords: Journalism, Trauma, Accidental, Celebrity, Giddens, Media, Agency
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Copyright 2019 the author

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