Early speculation and reporting on theme park deaths is unhelpful

Late yesterday four adults were killed on the Thunder River Rapids ride at the Dreamworld theme park in Queensland Australia. Investigations are ongoing and it was only recently that the names of some of the victims were released.  The first few days after any fatality are confusing as new information is uncovered, old concerns are voiced and our sympathies for the dead expressed.  However there are usually some comments that are unhelpful, and this morning was no exception.

ABC Radio’s AM program led with a report called “Union expresses concerns to Queensland safety regulator about Dreamworld rides”. In the report Ben Swan, Queensland Secretary of the Australian Workers Union says that the union raised safety and maintenance concerns with the company running DreamWorld, Ardent Leisure Group, earlier this year. Swan said that the concerns involved maintenance regimes and equipment but did not specify that Thunder River Rapids was part of those concerns.

Swan was at pains to not distract people from the incident investigation yet his readiness to be interviewed did just that. The union could have made its point about past safety concerns by pledging to cooperate with official investigations by the Coroner and Work Health and Safety Queensland.

Lawyer, Sugath Wijedoru was interviewed by AM over an incident at the theme park in April 2016 that involved his client. The incident involved a different ride and different circumstances.

Swan’s and Wijedoru’s comments and the structure of the AM report, imply that there was a systemic OHS problem with the theme park’s administration but how does this help the investigation less than a day after the deaths? Does this add to the grief and trauma of the relatives who have only just been informed of the deaths, or provide comfort?  DreamWorld may have systemic safety management problems but identifying this is the role of the investigators.

The information that Swan, Wijedoru and others have about the Thunder River Rapids ride and Dream World’s OHS practices generally is sure to be of interest to the investigators, regulators and Courts but did they need to comment within 24 hours of the tragedies? Who did this help?

The report also end with the reporter Katherine Gregory reminding the listener that

“there is no national regulator for theme parks in Australia. Instead it is managed by each jurisdiction.”

The implication is that there should be one. Why? The only National OHS regulator Australia has is Comcare and that only covers a selection of workplaces and industries. The fact is that Australia has no national regulator of workplace safety in the manner of other countries.  OHS is almost always dealt with by the States which makes the concluding comments curious and unnecessary.

Mainstream media feels the need to report news and the deaths of four people on an amusement ride is certainly news but does it need to encourage speculation about incident causes at the time that the company is trying to work out what happened and address the concerns of its workers, various investigators are only just getting the level of access to the scene they need, and relatives are finding out why some of their family are not coming home?

Kevin Jones

Categories business, communication, continuity, death, disaster, evidence, government, hazards, law, lawyers, media, OHS, risk, safety, union

14 thoughts on “Early speculation and reporting on theme park deaths is unhelpful”

  1. Fortunately or unfortunately we live in the age of social media which his training us to want instant information. As a manager of the system we should be prepared to cater for this demand of the media ( or the human mind being transformed). I feel strongly, management should have system to feed information to the media regularly to avoid such speculations.

  2. Kevin, apart from the issues around health and safety, which I hope will be resolved in time and investigated as they should be. My concern is the behaviour of the media with total disrespect to the families who have lost loved ones.

    Setting up “conspiracy” theories is damaging to those who are left to grieve and face the what will be a very public follow up.

    It is a tragedy, but media disgust me!

    1. Thanks Mark. I’m waiting for the podcast invitation. 🙂

      Since writing this article while having breakfast this morning and hearing the ABC report and reading about the incident in the newspapers, I was annoyed and puzzled. This afternoon I was angry at some of the experts who offered opinions based only on the information available through the press. My questions were largely rhetorical but heartfelt. The questions stopped being rhetorical when experts appeared this afternoon. “….how does this help the investigation less than a day after the deaths?” It doesn’t and I question anyone, other than the onsite investigators, who speak to the media offering an opinion on what happened based on next-to-no information about the incident.

      Safety professionals should respect the investigative process and reinforce the importance of that process to the media when they ask for an opinion. No one HAS to talk to the media when they call.

  3. We only “know” two things about this tragic event; the outrage factor as described by Peter Sandman, and the “Black Swan” nature of the event as described by Nicholas Taleb. Maybe, it should give pause to safety “professionals” about what their focus of professional attention should be, rather than the sophisticated systems targeting trivia we see so often

    1. David, I am not sure this is a Black Swan event as amusement park incidents occur frequently when looked at globally. Also I have yet to see any outrage as the investigation has only just begun but you did remind me to look at Peter Sandman’s website again. It continues to be regularly updated. If you are in Queensland next week, you can hear and meet Peter at a public seminar – http://www.ghd.com/drsandman/

  4. When news becomes a saleable commodity, ‘relevance’, ‘perspective’ and even ‘truth’ are the first things to be put on the discount rack…

  5. Every national incident such as the Dreamworld Theme Park incident generates a huge amount of comment which can very unhelpful and misinformed. Of course, it is a tragedy for the families of the people involved and clearly the incident should be thoroughly investigated. This is without question and there are already appropriate mechanisms to undertake investigations of this nature and methodologies to establish root causes which then form the basis for corrective actions.

    However the media wants to sell papers and generate headlines. A rational and reasoned approach takes time and effort and the currency of news headlines is three to four days. The common approach for a newspaper or reporter is to get a press release from the police or company involved. Contact a number of people who may have some distant link to the case. In this case, a lawyer involved in a legal case some years previous and a general non specific comment from a Union who traditionally will always say that they had brought up safe concerns for the organisation in the last 10 years. This generates the bulk of the article and then cap with the article with the call for additional legislation or a new Authority for the issue concerned and then a special group to tackle the issue nationally.

    If the reporter gets some responses, the next step is to interview a politician who is then pushed into a statement saying they will legislate to effect change. In six months, the same politician is in front the media talking about the extra legislation and the new authority to prevent re-occurrences. Every theme park, many of whom have operated for many years without incident, are then forced to implement unrealistic systems and a number close down.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of media driven legislation which adds a layer of red tape to everything that we do. The existing plant and amusement systems work, provided that they are implemented and monitored. A detailed investigation is likely to indicate a range of systems failures within the organisation but also within the regulator. I would suggest that improving the efficiency of the audit process of the regulator would bear more results than another layer of legislation.

    1. Peter, great thoughtful response. I understand the news cycle and the pressures on the press and wanted to point out that one of the consequences of this rapid media coverage is that OHS investigation gets sidelined. There is an inherent conflict between the immediacy of the media and the measured and considered investigation process.

      The challenge is that the community’s major source of information is the media and not the investigation reports. Also people are naturally inquisitive and want to know as much as we can as soon as we can, which justifies, to some extent, the news media’s approach. It is just that this approach doesn’t not allow for reflection or the reflection occurs after the perceptual damage is done.

      Another interesting point is to listen out for when the media finally talks to an OHS/WHS expert in plant safety or who has investigated theme park incidents in the past, and not just in Australia. The case of Alton Towers in UK, albeit not the same ride, may indicate a cultural approach to safety unique to theme park operations – https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/jun/02/alton-towers-rollercoaster-accident-four-seriously-hurt-as-carriages-collide The media is listing previous theme park incidents in Australia going back at least to the Luna Park fire in Sydney but without interviewing any of the safety regulators or investigators of previous incidents. I think this also says heaps about the visibility of the OHS profession in Australia.

  6. Thank you for articulating my own thoughts on this, Kevin and Stephen Sandilands. I was dismayed to see the Qld Premier interviewed on 7:30 report and found her plea to tourists to not avoid the State insensitive to those suffering families, and really quite unnecessary. I also think interviewing the PM on this matter on the ABC 7pm news was unnecessary. He can only say what any of us would say – hearts out to the suffering families. The media does seem to have changed its standards in the reporting of these types of events – perhaps it is the competition to see who can interview whom first? In my opinion there is no valid reason for doing this and every reason not to.

  7. Again so succinct and on the money with your assessment Kevin. Yes media feel the need to report but somehow our electronic media and journalistic levels seem to have dropped on the vetting and ethical editing of content and in many cases constant requestioning of individuals if the answers do not meet the expectations of the interviewer.

    Of course freedom of the press will be raised as a defence but sadly in some cases that is an overuse of teh excuses now. and shows no empathy or compassion or understanding of the grief of those involved or the broader social and community impact.

    But let’s not forget another group, yes the politiicans who seem to want to use it to keep in the limelight by commenting. Why comment on this except for political profile value when you dont do the same on every road death or murder or other incident???

    Somewhere there has to be a balance and a raising of social compassionand understanding for teh privacy and grief of those affected.

    1. I have more sympathy for the politicians, Stephen, as they are always hounded for a comment on the latest issue. I think Malcolm Turnbull did well be focussing on his sympathy for the families affected by the tragedy. I don’t think he sought to make comment but was asked as part of a “doorstop” and he was in Queensland at the time.

      The local Premier will be more vocal on the tragedy as her OHS authority is investigating. She is much closer to the responsibility.

      Your point on inconsistency is valid but is difficult one to resolve. I remember reading that US Senator Teddy Kennedy attended every funeral of returning soldiers from the Middle East without any media attention or notice to them. He simply and quietly attended to show respect. If this is true, and I believe it is, it was political conduct and discretion that should be emulated.

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