The Pitch

Many Victorian readers may not have heard the news from north of the border this week, so please forgive the brief backstory before the more traditional piece:

Last week, a photograph from the Canberra Raiders’ Mad Monday celebrations was published via Twitter. An anonymous tweeter decided that the image was too important not to publish. Apparently, the image had been distributed in rugby league circles since Mad Monday, yet it took until last week for it to go viral online.

The image was of Canberra three-quarter Joel Monaghan, a 28 year-old member of the club’s leadership group who has represented New South Wales and Australia, forcing a dog to give him oral sex.

Unsurprisingly, outrage has been the prevailing emotion – directed at Monaghan, at Mad Monday as an institution, at alcohol, at rugby league, and even at social networking.

Monaghan is due to quit the club within days, and is expected to attempt to resurrect his football career overseas.

In the Year 12 VCE Media syllabus in Victoria, there’s a unit of work called Media Influence. During this unit, students learn about theories of communication which various theorists have constructed during the past 90 years in an attempt to explain the nature and extent of the influence that the media has over its various audiences.

One of the theories taught in a majority of classrooms is ‘Reinforcement Theory’, which was developed by Joseph Klapper in the 1960’s. Reinforcement Theory states that the media purely works to reinforce what audience members already believe. Other factors, such as one’s family, school, peers, workplace, religion and culture are seen as having a greater influence on an audience member than the media – unless, of course, the media is raising concepts with which the audience member is entirely unfamiliar.

Media students need not only to understand communication theories, but they also must be able to analyse a piece of media research that either implicitly or explicitly appears to support each theory they study. The most common piece of research used by students to support Reinforcement Theory is Sweeney Research’s 1999 study of the Victorian Traffic Accident Commission’s shock advertising.

The research found that in the first 10 years of the shock ads being broadcast, the road toll in Victoria decreased by half. It also found a correlation between the intensity of advertisements on television and the road toll. Upon surveying research subjects who watched a variety of ads, the TAC found that viewers predicted their driving behaviour was more likely to become safer after they viewed ads they regarded to be original, informative and emotional.

While this research appears to support Reinforcement Theory – we all know that we shouldn’t speed or drink and drive, but the ads reinforce this good behaviour – students also need to understand that there are always issues in assessing how much influence the media has. Indeed, the TAC argue that there are many other things that might have caused the road toll to decrease, such as safer cars, stricter and more regularly enforced laws, and changed social norms. However, their research appears to imply that the ads are having some sort of positive effect, and as such they don’t want to take the risk of stopping producing their ads.

On the ABC’s Offsiders on Sunday morning, Gerard Whateley said of the Joel Monaghan incident: “Some things actually bear no relation to sport. And I could imagine all levels of officialdom when this all came out on Thursday going, ‘We wish this all would just go away.’ And whaddya know? It’s gonna go away.”

Whateley’s point, too, was tossed away by host Barry Cassidy. Literally 30 seconds after the subject being raised, it was off the agenda.

But in some circles, it shouldn’t go away. And Monaghan doesn’t have to either.

After blanket coverage in Canberra and Sydney this week, there have been calls for the media to ease off on Monaghan, someone who could easily be a suicide risk. He will, they say, be forced to live with this mistake for the rest of his life, and unless he moves somewhere that doesn’t have the Internet, one suspects they’re right.

As such, perhaps it’s worth considering the notion that the best value that Monaghan can be to rugby league and to Australian sport is by remaining here in Australia.

Earlier this year, the TAC produced a new ad campaign based around the death of 19 year-old Luke Robinson from Bannockburn, who died while speeding in his car. The Everybody Hurts campaign showed the honest, non-fictional reaction of a number of people influenced by Robinson’s death. As you can see on their excellent website, this included not only his family and mates, but eyewitnesses, cops, and even the local newsagent. The ads are designed to remind audiences of exactly how people’s lives are affected when they lose a loved one in such circumstanecs.

There’s a similar product to be made to help educate young Australian sportspeople. For while everyone knows how they should and should not act, even when drunk on Mad Monday, some sportspeople clearly need that message reinforced more often.

Joel Monaghan’s life, for the moment, has been destroyed. But the most pertinent point is that had you asked him a month ago which NRL player would be most likely to quit his club in November after being caught committing bestiality on Mad Monday, there’s a fair chance that he wouldn’t have named himself.

Perhaps if someone were to interview him, his parents, grandparents, girlfriend, mates, the owner of the dog, young kids who wear his jumper and are copping it at primary school because he’s their favourite player, the parents of those kids, his past and present coaches, female Raiders fans, sponsors and others, their real, honest and emotion-filled responses to this event might become an excellent educational tool.

The TAC shock ads don’t tell people not to drive their cars, but they certainly tell people to drive safely. With the right acceptance of what happened, and enough guts to accept and front up to his abhorrent actions on a daily basis in the future, Monaghan and the NRL don’t have to tell their players not to drink or enjoy Mad Monday, but they could certainly reinforce positive and restrained behaviour through an original, emotional and informative media product.

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