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Steve Irwin's Influence on Wildlife Conservation

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The present study assesses audience involvement with popular television personality Steve Irwin, who died tragically at the peak of his career. A survey of 1,800 media consumers revealed that Irwin was perceived to be a hero and role model for wildlife conservation. News of his death spread quickly and globally, promoting interpersonal dialoguing and Internet searching. Those more highly involved with Irwin talked with more people and longer about his death, and, as hypothesized, were more likely to increase their support of wildlife conservation. The effects of involvement with Irwin spanned age groups, educational levels, ethnic groups, and gender. Implications of these findings on the international influence of popular celebrities are discussed.
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Journal of Communication ISSN 0021-9916
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Steve Irwin’s Influence on Wildlife
Conservation
William J. Brown
School of Communication and the Arts, Regent University, 1000 Regent University Drive, Virginia Beach,
VA 23464, USA
The present study assesses audience involvement with popular television personality Steve
Irwin, who died tragically at the peak of his career. A survey of 1,800 media consumers
revealed that Irwin was perceived to be a hero and role model for wildlife conservation. News
of his death spread quickly and globally, promoting interpersonal dialoguing and Internet
searching. Those more highly involved with Irwin talked with more people and longer
about his death, and, as hypothesized, were more likely to increase their support of wildlife
conservation. The effects of involvement with Irwin spanned age groups, educational levels,
ethnic groups, and gender. Implications of these findings on the international influence of
popular celebrities are discussed.
doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01458.x
The mediated influence of international celebrities in the 21st century presents
communication scholars with a fascinating social phenomenon to study. Although
celebrities have always been an important source of mediated social influence, the
ubiquitous reach and proliferation of entertainment media during the last several
decades have increased attention on media personalities. Electronic and digital
media provide millions of people with access to the lives of celebrities, who in turn
have increasing potential to influence the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of media
consumers. The social influence of celebrities has likely never been greater than it is
today. Thus, the need to study how celebrities influence our thinking, feelings, and
social practices has never been more opportune.
The purpose of the present study is to explore the mediated influence of one
specific type of celebrity, the celebrity hero. Steve Irwin, one of the most popular
personalities of this decade, is both a celebrity and hero to millions of people. In the
present study, people’s involvement with Irwin and the effects of that involvement
on wildlife conservation are explored. First, a brief biography of Steve Irwin, tracing
his rise from a young zookeeper to an international celebrity, is provided. This
Corresponding author: William J. Brown; e-mail: willbro@regent.edu
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Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
background information is followed by a discussion of relevant literature that
considers the growing influence of celebrities and how involvement with them
becomes a powerful process of social influence. A discussion of previous studies
of celebrities and their social influence, focusing on two theories that explain how
people become psychologically and emotionally involved with celebrities, is then
presented. Based on these theories of involvement, four hypotheses that explore the
influence of Steve Irwin are examined.
Steve Irwin: Becoming a hero
Steve Irwin was born in 1962 in Victoria, Australia. His parents were dedicated to
wildlife conservation and created a small reptile park at Beerwah on the Sunshine
Coast in Queensland in 1970. The park, which became known as the Australian
Zoo, was a family business which Steve began to manage in 1991. Irwin’s father
taught him how to hunt crocodiles for relocating, and, by age nine, he was already
jumping on crocodiles at night in the rivers of North Queensland (The Crocodile
Hunter, 2006). He later joined the Queensland Government East Coast Crocodile
Management Program, where he amassed an impressive record of successful crocodile
catches.
In 1991, Terri Baines, an American naturalist who had founded her own animal
rehabilitation center, Cougar County, visited the Australian Zoo, where she witnessed
Irwin’s unique interaction with crocodiles. Their mutual attraction was immediate
and they were married 9 months later. The following year, Irwin produced an hour-
long documentary and launched the popular television series Crocodile Hunter on
the cable television network Animal Planet. Irwin quickly became internationally
known, promoting wildlife conservation through a highly entertaining program that
featured Irwin’s wrestling with crocodiles and chasing snakes into trees, rocks, and
other hiding places. Together with his wife Terri, who became his coproducer, Irwin
mesmerized, amused, and educated millions of television viewers for the next 14 years
through his programs, films, and television specials broadcast on Discovery’s Animal
Planet. The hundreds of television programs and several films have been seen by
more than 500 million people (‘‘Steve Irwin,’’ 2006). The Irwins donated generously
to wildlife conservation organizations over the years.
On September 4, 2006, Irwin was tragically killed from a stingray barb that
penetrated his heart. By the time of his tragic death, Irwin had already established
himself as a popular celebrity, having won international acclaim as a role model for
wildlife education and conservation. No longer were the popular Australian phrases
‘‘crikey,’’ ‘‘no worries mate,’’ and ‘‘good on ya’’ exclusively Australian. Irwin had made
the terms popular in all 160 countries where Animal Planet was broadcast. Discovery
Networks International President Dawn McCall stated that Irwin’s ‘‘passion for
animals and leadership in wildlife conservation awareness leaves a powerful lasting
legacy across the globe’’ (Discovery Communications, 2006). In 2007, Irwin was
elected into Australian television’s Hall of Fame (Daily Telegraph, 2007).
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W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
The growing influence of celebrities
Television viewers today are exposed to an array of international celebrities. Excep-
tional athletes like former NBA champion Michael Jordan and professional golfer
Tiger Woods, top-earning performing artists like Madonna and Justin Timberlake,
and film stars like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are likely recognized by billions
of people. Over the decades this increased exposure to professional athletes, enter-
tainers, and other mediated personas has generated exceedingly large earnings for
them through advertising contracts. Advertising research indicates that celebrities can
effectively promote product sales by creating more consumer awareness and favorable
attitudes of the products they endorse (Friedman & Friedman, 1979; Kamins, 1990;
Knott & St. James, 2004; Tripp, Jensen, & Carlson, 1994; Van der Waldt, Schleritzko,
& Van Zyl, 2007). By seeking to match endorsers’ public exposure, attributes, and
lifestyle with the type of product or service being promoted, celebrities have been
shown to be effective influencers of purchasing behavior (Erdogan, Baker, & Tagg,
2001; Hsu & McDonald, 2002; Kahle & Homer, 1985; Kalra & Goodstein, 1998;
Kamins & Gupta, 1994; Till & Busler, 1998). In fact, corporations that employ
celebrities as spokespersons also tend to increase their profits (Agrawal & Kamakura,
1995; Mathur, Mathur & Rangun, 1997), and celebrity endorsements have become
a ubiquitous feature of marketing. By 1997, the use of celebrities in advertisements
reached 25% in the United States (Stephens & Rice, 1998) and 70% in Japan
(Kilburn, 1998).
The income-generating power of celebrities can extend long after their deaths
(Goldman, 1994; Miller, 1993). Albert Einstein, W.C. Fields, Marilyn Monroe, James
Dean, Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Louis Armstrong, Groucho
Marx, James Cagney, Greta Garbo, and Babe Ruth have all advertised products
posthumously. Forbes, which measures celebrity influence by combining earning
power and media hits, annually posts lists of the top-earning dead celebrities. Their
2007 report indicates that for the fifth year in a row, Elvis Presley is the ‘‘king of the
crypt,’’ earning $49 million that year, followed closely by John Lennon, whose estate
increased by $44 million (Goldman & Ewalt, 2007).
Sports organizations place considerable resources toward marketing their athletes
internationally. Consider the stars of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The NBA, which has a section on their website dedicated to their global activities,
has made a concerted effort to market its players and products internationally. In
2003, there were 65 NBA players from outside the United States representing 34
different countries and territories (Eisenberg, 2003). In the NBA All-Star Weekend
that year, which features the sport’s best new players, one third of them came from
overseas. At that time, an estimated 20% of all NBA merchandise was sold overseas
(Eisenberg, 2003), most with the help of the league’s most popular international
celebrities. By the end of the 2006 season, the NBA featured 85 international
players from 37 countries and territories on official rosters (National Basketball
Association, 2008).
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Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
The endorsement contracts of a popular athlete can far exceed their considerable
earnings through their sport. By 2006, the endorsement earnings by golf sensation
Tiger Woods exceeded his tournament earnings by seven times, though he is the
most accomplished player on the PGA tour (Gold Digest, 2006). He became the
first billion-dollar athlete after winning the FedEx Cup title in September of 2009
(Badenhausen, 2009). Because Woods entered the PGA Tour, PGA Tour prizes have
tripled, making all the other players wealthier through the increased advertising
dollars Woods has attracted.
Celebrities, news diffusion and social issues
In addition to the economic influence of celebrities, they also can influence important
social issues, news diffusion, and public policy. Celebrities are magnets for news media
and for opportunistic paparazzi seeking to break a big story. Newspapers, magazines,
and news entertainment television programs have created what Shenk calls the
‘‘celebro-journalist’’ (1996, p. 13), a person who reports celebrity news. Many of the
major cable news networks such as CNN, FOX, and MSNBC devote a considerable
amount of news time to reporting on celebrities; major newspapers have experienced
‘‘tabloidization’’ by reporting as hard news stories what traditionally was found in
the tabloid press (Harris, 2005, pp. 1– 2). Today celebrity news is a staple of both
print and electronic news media.
Although hundreds of news diffusion studies have been conducted since the
1940s, very few studies have explored how news stories of celebrities diffuse (Inoue &
Kawakami, 2004). When celebrities are at the center of a news event, such as when
‘‘Magic’’ Johnson held a special news conference to announce that he was HIV
positive (Basil & Brown, 1994), or when O.J. Simpson was evading his arrest on Los
Angeles freeways (Brown, Duane, & Fraser, 1997), or when John F. Kennedy Jr.’s
plane crashed off Martha’s Vineyard (Brown, Fraser, & Bocarnea, 2001), the news
diffuses rapidly. The more important and the more internationally known a celebrity
is who is at the center of a news story, the more rapidly the news will diffuse. The
media frenzy surrounding Princess Diana’s death illustrates what Leo Braudy (1997)
aptly describes as ‘‘the frenzy of renown.’’ In such situations the news coverage
becomes part of the news story (Brown, Basil, & Bocarnea, 2003a).
When a celebrity is associated with a social issue, knowledge of that issue is
disseminated, drawing public attention to it. This was powerfully demonstrated by
the spike in AIDS hotline calls that followed ‘‘Magic’’ Johnson’s HIV announce-
ments (Leerhsen et al., 1991; Rogers, Dearing, & Chang, 1991). Casey et al.’s (2003)
meta-analysis of 15 studies of the effects of ‘‘Magic’’ Johnson’s announcements
demonstrates how a single celebrity event can diffuse knowledge and influence
millions of people about a important health issue such as HIV/AIDS.
The potential for entertainers to draw attention to social issues and influence
public policy also is illustrated by the work of Paul Hewson of Ireland, who is more
commonly known as Bono. As lead singer for the rock band U2, Bono leverages his
celebrity status to raise money for African famine relief, promote AIDS awareness and
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W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
prevention, inspire investment in Africa, and influence church organizations and U.S.
government policy to help meet the needs of the poor in Africa (Falsani, 2003). Actors
Mia Farrow, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, and Don Cheadle are strategically using
their celebrity influence to draw attention to critical needs in Africa, particularly in
Darfur, and ultimately to influence U.S. policy there to stop the genocide. Other
celebrities have taken on the role of chief spokespersons for specific health issues.
Notable celebrities and their causes include Jerry Lewis for Muscular Dystrophy,
Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John for HIV/AIDS prevention, Sally Struthers for Save
the Children, the late Christopher and Dana Reeve for neurological research, and
Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s disease. The association of individual celebrities with
specific health issue campaigns has become more pronounced in recent years.
In summary, the growing influence of celebrities can be seen in economics,
politics, media, and culture. Their international influence is extensive due to the
pervasive reach of entertainment media, which continues to increase throughout
the world. The conglomeration of media companies and vertical integration of the
entertainment industry has brought music, print, television, and film production
under the control of single, multinational companies whose distribution outlets span
the world. Mediated personalities, both real and fictional, can become powerful
sources of social influence as they are exposed to large audiences through media
and mediated events. In the following discussion, a theoretical framework for
understanding how celebrities can fill the role of heroes and attract a following is
presented. Then two closely related processes of involvement that explain how people
develop relationships with celebrities and adopt their attitudes, beliefs, and behavior
are considered.
The celebrity as pseudohero
Boorstin (1961) was one of the first scholars to recognize the rise of the celebrity in
popular culture and to predict their powerful social influence. The unprecedented
expansion of multinational media corporations that has made rock musicians,
recording artists, television and film stars, and athletes internationally known was
only beginning when Boorstin wrote his visionary work 48 years ago.
Discussing the transition from traditional heroes to celebrities, Boorstin (1961)
regarded the hero as a person who was distinguished by achievement and self-created;
whereas, he regarded the celebrity as an image or persona created by the media and
distinguished by his or her trademark. He observed that ‘‘the hero was a big man,
the celebrity a big name’’ (Boorstin, 1961, p. 61). Traditional heroes are known for
great acts of courage or outstanding accomplishments requiring exceptional skill and
fortitude. They often are reluctantly thrust into the public spotlight and may not see
themselves as heroes. Director Clint Eastwood’s highly acclaimed film, Flags of our
Fathers, illustrates this inner conflict in the lives of the heroes of Iwo Jima who raised
the American flag over Mt. Sarabachi.
In contrast, celebrities become known for their self-promotion and media
exposure, often relishing the public spotlight. The status of traditional heroes usually
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Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
grows slowly and endures over a long time period; but celebrities are given status
by the amount of media coverage they attract, which often occurs rapidly but is
seldom enduring (Brown & Fraser, 2007). In the highly mediated culture in which
we now live, many of those who are most famous and idolized are not necessarily
those who have demonstrated moral courage or heroism, but those who have
garnered the greatest amount of media attention (Loftus, 1995). Thus, celebrities can
become pseudoheroes by taking the role of traditional heroes in the lives of media
consumers.
Common definitions of heroes include the attributes of sacrifice. Vogler (1998,
p. 35) traces the root idea of hero to the concept of self-sacrifice on behalf of others.
A celebrity does not need to be self-sacrificing in order to achieve the status of
a pseudohero, although such heroes may be perceived by fans as those who have
made personal sacrifices in order to achieve great feats or in order to benefit others.
Likewise, some celebrities may be perceived as those who act courageously in an
unselfish manner, a perception that may or may not be accurate. Thus, the images
of the traditional hero and of the modern day celebrity have become blurred to the
extent that many celebrities are perceived as heroes, or what is referred to as ‘‘celebrity
heroes.’’
Involvement with celebrity heroes
The means by which celebrity heroes gain social influence can be explained by
two processes of involvement first theorized in the late 1950s: parasocial interac-
tion and identification. Parasocial interaction, introduced by Horton and Wohl
(1956) in a psychiatry journal, is fairly well known among communication scholars.
Conceptualized as the imaginary relationship between a television viewer and tele-
vision personality or persona, a parasocial relationship is a pseudorelationship that
results from a sense of intimacy created during media consumption (Levy, 1979).
Visual communication technologies like television provide a rich environment for
parasocial interaction to occur (Gumpert & Cathcart, 1986, pp. 1725). Parasocial
relationships have been observed between television viewers and newscasters, talk
show hosts, situation comedy stars, and soap opera characters (Babb & Brown, 1994;
Brown & Cody, 1991; Cathcart, 1986; Levy, 1979; Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Rubin &
Perse, 1987; Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985).
During the past 15 years, several scholars have studied parasocial interaction in a
broader context beyond the medium of television, demonstrating that people form
parasocial relationships with celebrities through a variety of media and mediated
events (Basil, 1996; Brown, 2009; Brown et al., 1997; Brown & Fraser, 2004; Brown
& de Matviuk, in press; Brown & Pfeiffer, 2006; Brown et al., 2003a; Fraser & Brown,
2002). For example, sports fans develop parasocial relationships with athletes through
their attendance at sports events and through exposure to televised sports, movies,
talk show interviews, and commercials featuring sports celebrities (Brown & Basil,
1995; Brown, Basil, & Bocarnea, 2003b).
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W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
In 1958, Herbert Kelman introduced his theory of identification. He viewed
identification as one of three processes of persuasion that occurs through actual or
perceived relationships (Kelman, 1958). He sought to build a theoretical framework
for understanding public opinion formation and for making predictions of behavior
change. Kelman described ‘‘classical identification’’ as ‘‘attempts to be like or actually
be the other person’’ (1961, p. 63). This type of identification is illustrated by the
thousands of Elvis Presley impersonators around the world who seek to be like Elvis
(Fraser & Brown, 2002). Kelman (1961) observed that people imitated others as a
way of maintaining a desired relationship to another person or group, explaining,
‘‘By saying what the other says, doing what he does, believing what he believes,
the individual maintains this relationship and the satisfying self-definition that it
provides him’’ (p. 63). In this identification process, a person adopts the attitudes,
beliefs, and behaviors of another person because he or she actually believes in him
or her, and it is not necessary that the object of identification be aware that this
process is taking place. Thus, a person can identify with a celebrity by adopting
his or her attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors without any real interaction with the
celebrity.
Several notable scholars also have contributed important conceptions of identi-
fication that inform Kelman’s work, including Freud (1922), Lasswell (1965), and
Burke (1969). Burke focused on the relationships of speakers with their intended
audiences, seeing identification as a way in which one communicator says to another
communicator, ‘‘I am like you’’ or ‘‘I have the same interests as you’’ (Cheney,
1983, p. 147). Whereas Burke focused on a communicator’s ability to develop a
relationship with an audience by becoming one with the audience, Kelman focused
on the audience becoming one with a communicator, a process particularly useful
when studying the influence of media personas.
Important studies of identification consistent with Kelman’s theoretical frame-
work include research by Feilitzen and Linne (1975) and Hoffner (1996), who
explored the concept of ‘‘wishful identification’’ of children; Basil and Brown (1995)
and Basil (1996), who studied identification with ‘‘Magic’’ Johnson; Stack (2000),
who studied the effects of identification on copycat suicides that follow news of
celebrity suicides; Fraser and Brown (2002), who studied Elvis Presley imperson-
ators; Adams-Price and Greene (1990), who explored adolescents’ identification with
celebrities; and Brown et al. (2003a, 2003b), who studied identification with Princess
Diana and Mark McGwire.
In summary, scholars theorize that two types of involvement can result from
repeated exposure to media personalities. The first type of involvement is a process
by which media consumers develop a perceived friendship with a persona, defined as
parasocial interaction. The second type of involvement is a process by which media
consumers adopt the perceived attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of a persona in order
to develop or maintain a self-defined relationship, defined as identification. Iden-
tification often follows parasocial interaction, especially with celebrities considered
to be good role models. Following are the research questions and corresponding
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Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
hypotheses of this study that explore the social influence process that occurred
through involvement with Steve Irwin.
Research questions and hypotheses
The study was divided into two parts. First, diffusion of the news of Steve Irwin’s
death through news media and interpersonal relationships was assessed among those
seeking information about Irwin on the Internet. News of the tragic deaths of popular
celebrities like Princess Diana (Brown et al., 2003a) and John F. Kennedy, Jr. (Brown
et al., 2001), attracts an extensive amount of media coverage, contributing to the
rapid diffusion of the news of their deaths by word of mouth (DeFleur, 1987). News
of the unexpected death of Steve Irwin was examined by the following research
question:
RQ1: When did respondents first learn about Steve Irwin’s death and how did they learn?
News sources for following major events in the lives of celebrities vary depend-
ing upon the day and time of the event. For example, ‘‘Magic’’ Johnson’s HIV
announcement was during the day and was learned extensively through television
(Basil & Brown, 1994), as was O.J. Simpson’s arrest for the murder of his wife
Nicole and Ron Goldman (Brown et al., 1997). In contrast, Steve Irwin’s death
occurred in the late morning in eastern Australia, which is late in the evening in New
York in the United States. In addition, Irwin’s fans were younger than followers of
other celebrities whose deaths have been studied by media scholars. The increased
consumption of news on the Internet, particularly by young people (Loges & Jung,
2001; O’Donnell, 2003; Shah, McLeod, & Yoon, 2001), is expected to influence how
people followed the Irwin story. These factors prompted exploration of the following
research question:
RQ2: What was the most important news source of respondents who followed the media
coverage of Steve Irwin’s death?
One of the important effects of widely mediated celebrity events is the dis-
cussion they generate. Earvin ‘‘Magic’’ Johnson sparked discussion of HIV among
heterosexuals (Brown & Basil, 1995), O.J. Simpson generated discussion of spousal
abuse (Brown, Duane, & Fraser, 1997), and Mark McGwire sparked interest and talk
about anabolic steroids (Brown et al., 2003b). Princess Diana’s death and subsequent
memorial events have resulted in sustained giving to her various charities (Brown &
Fraser, 2007). Discussion of Steve Irwin’s death with others is an important indicator
of his subsequent social influence. Research question three explores this potential
influence:
RQ3: Did respondents discuss Steve Irwin’s death with others, and if so, how many people did
they discuss his death with?
80 Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73– 93 ©2010 International Communication Association
W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
Gender also can be an important variable in studying the diffusion of celebrity
news. Inoue and Kawakami (2004) found that women were more likely than men to
pass on stories about celebrities to others. As a follow-up to the previous research
question, the following research question was posed:
RQ4: Did women discuss Steve Irwin’s death with more people than men did and did they
spend more time discussing Irwin’s death with others than men did?
The primary independent variable in this study is audience involvement with
Steve Irwin, defined as the aggregate of the affective, cognitive, and behavioral
facets of media consumers’ parasocial interaction and identification with him. The
research discussed earlier suggests that involvement with a celebrity will lead people
to consume media to learn more about the celebrity and will increase people’s
consideration of the social causes associated with the celebrity. Thus, the following
predictions were tested:
H1: Involvement with Steve Irwin will be positively associated with news media
consumption covering the story about his death.
H2: Involvement with Steve Irwin will be positively associated with (a) interest in
conservation, and (b) increased support for conservation.
H3: Involvement with Steve Irwin will be positively associated with (a) the number of
people that respondents discussed his death with, and (b) the total number of hours that
respondents spent discussing his death with others.
H4: Respondents who exhibit stronger involvement with Steve Irwin will (a) more likely
visit his organization’s website, and (b) will more likely give a financial donation to his
organization, the Wildlife Warriors.
Method
Because the death of Steve Irwin was unanticipated, time constraints prescribed
the research design to a posthoc field study. Given the need to conduct a multi-
national study in a short period of time, a self-administered web-based survey was
implemented. As Ross et al. (2005, p. 245) note, ‘‘the Internet is becoming a favored
technology for carrying out survey research’’ and in many respects web-based sur-
veys are superior to other types of survey data collection, including e-mail surveys
(Andrews, Nonnecke, & Preece, 2003). The advantages of using the Internet to
collect behavioral data include ‘‘rapid access to numerous potential respondents
and previously hidden populations, respondent openness and full participation,
opportunities for student research, and reduced research costs’’ (Barbeite & Weiss,
2004; Rhodes, Bowie, & Hergenrather, 2003). An online survey questionnaire also
provided an adequate sample to use analytic techniques to test the hypotheses of this
study.
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Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
The survey was advertised through google.com in the United States, Canada,
the United Kingdom, and Australia, four countries with large numbers of viewers
of Animal Planet. When Internet users conducted searches on google.com with
keywords such as ‘‘Steve Irwin,’’ ‘‘Steve Irwin’s death,’’ ‘‘Irwin’s death,’’ a link for
our survey would appear in the right column asking people to freely provide their
opinions about Steve Irwin. By clicking on the link, respondents were taken to the
survey hosted by the University of Virginia’s national survey center website.
Research instrument
The survey had a total of 41 questions. There were 30 closed-ended questions,
including 20 Likert-scale items based on a 1 5 agree –disagree continuum, five open
questions, five demographic questions, and one open essay question. The question-
naire items used to measure involvement were adapted from two published scales,
the Celebrity-Persona Parasocial Interaction Scale (Bocarnea & Brown, 2007) and
the Celebrity-Persona Identification Scale (Brown & Bocarnea, 2007). Involvement
items included ‘‘I feel I know Steve Irwin as a friend,’’ ‘‘I strongly identify with Steve
Irwin,’’ ‘‘Steve Irwin has shown me values that I want to live by,’’ and ‘‘Steve Irwin’s
death was like losing my own brother.’’ Open questions included ‘‘How many people
have you discussed Steve Irwin’s death with?’’ and ‘‘How many total hours have you
spent talking to others about Steve Irwin since learning about his death?’’
Respondents
The self-selected sample consisted of 1894 respondents. The data were screened for
irregularities and 94 of the surveys were removed from the data file because they were
incomplete or irregular, leaving a sample of 1800. The gender of the respondents
was 25.7% men, indicating a strong sampling bias toward women. Age groupings
were as follows: 7.5% were less than 18 years old, 8.8% were age 18– 25, 33.5% were
age 2640, 43.0% were age 41 60, and 7.2% were older than age 60. Ethnicity was
as follows: 80.1% identified their ethnicity as Caucasian, 1.2% as Asian American,
3.0% as Black or African American, 3.8% as Hispanic American, and 11.2% as other
ethnicities. The educational level of the sample was as follows: 14.1% had not yet
completed high school, 22.0% were high school graduates, 30.6% had some college
education, 16.8% had a 4-year college degree, and 16.5% had completed graduate
work. Politically, the sample identified 21.5% as politically liberal, 40.2% as politically
moderate, and 38.3% as politically conservative.
Measured variables
The involvement scale had 12 Likert items and yielded a Cronbach alpha of 0.97.
A news media consumption variable also was created by combining three survey
items that measured television news consumption, print news consumption, and
Internet news consumption concerning Steve Irwin’s death. The scale yielded a
Cronbach alpha of 0.69. All other variables were measured by single questionnaire
items.
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W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
Statistical analysis
Descriptive statistics for all interval and nominal data were conducted using SPSS
15.0. Descriptive statistics also were produced for the involvement scale, which had
a range of 48, from 12 to 60, a mean of 34.2, and standard deviation of 12.3. Note
that involvement with Steve Irwin was moderate, with 36 indicating the midpoint
of the involvement scale. The news media consumption scale had a range of 288,
from 0 to 288, a mean of 15.6, and a standard deviation of 22.3. Hours of media
consumption were cumulative, and therefore, a comparison of the mean with the
range is not appropriate because respondents answered the survey at different points
in time over a 5-day period. Simple regression analyses were used to test hypotheses
1–3 and t-tests were used to test hypothesis 4, again using SPSS 15.0.
Decision rules
Due to the large sample size, statistical support for hypotheses will be based on
attaining a p<.01 probability level for statistics rather than the traditional p<.05
level. Also, because three of the hypotheses had two parts, these hypotheses will be
considered supported only if both parts yield statistically significant relationships.
Results are now reported in the order in which the research questions and hypotheses
were presented.
Results
The first research question investigated when and how respondents first learned about
Steve Irwin’s death. Results indicate that 62.7% of the sample learned of his death
within the first 7 h. The news broke of his death on Monday afternoon, September 4,
in Australia, which was Monday morning in the United States By Monday evening
EST, 79.6% of the respondents had heard the news of his death. By the end of Tuesday
morning EST, September 5, 93.6% of the respondents knew of Irwin’s death. Thus,
the news diffused very rapidly among Irwin fans, as illustrated in Figure 1.
Most of the respondents learned about Irwin’s death through television, 37.8%.
The second most common news source was hearing the news from another person,
which was 26.3% of the sample. Learning sources of Irwin’s death is provided in
Figure 2.
The second research question examined the most important news source that
respondents used to follow this news story after first learning about Irwin’s death.
The Internet was identified by 50.7% of the respondents as their most important
news source, followed by television, at 38.0%.
The third research question explored how respondents discussed Steve Irwin’s
death with others. Results indicate the average respondent discussed his death with
16 people and the average amount of time respondents spent in conversation about
Irwin’s death was 6 h and 20 min.
The last research question explored the role of gender in how the news of Steve
Irwin’s death diffused to others. Results indicate that men talked an average of
Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73–93 ©2010 International Communication Association 83
Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
5 h and 20 min to others about Irwin’s death, whereas women talked an average
of 6 h and 42 min to others. This difference, although at the margin of statistical
significance (t(1625) =1.96, p=.05), is not considered sufficient to warrant a
relevant distinction given the large sample size. Men talked to an average of 15.9
people, whereas women talked to an average of 15.7 people about Irwin’s death. This
slight difference also is not statistically significant (t(1714) =0.12, p=.91), Thus,
women did not diffuse the news about Irwin’s death more than men did.
Hypotheses
The first hypothesis, which predicted that involvement with Steve Irwin would
be positively associated with news media consumption pertaining to his death,
was supported. Respondents who were more involved with Irwin spent more time
consuming news about his death through television, print news, and the Internet
(ß=.31, p<.001).
The second hypothesis predicted that involvement with Steve Irwin would be
positively associated with interest in conservation and increased support for conser-
vation. Results also support this hypothesis. The stronger the people’s involvement
with Irwin, the more interested they were in conservation (ß=.80, p<.001) and
the more they indicated they would increase their support for conservation (results
also produced ß=.80, p<.001).
The third hypothesis, which predicted that involvement with Steve Irwin would
be positively associated with the number of people that respondents discussed his
death with and with the total number of hours that respondents spent discussing his
death, was also supported. Respondents discussed Irwin’s death with an average of
16 people (M=15.7, range =0 to 220, SD =22.6) and spent an average of 6.3 h
0
20
40
60
80
100
120
Daytime
10/4
Evening
10/4
Morning
10/5
Afternoon
10/5
Evening
10/5
Daytime
10/6
Percent of Respondents
Figure 1 Diffusion of the news of Steve Irwin’s death.
84 Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73– 93 ©2010 International Communication Association
W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
0 10203040
Television
Another Person
The Internet
Radio
Print News
Other Sources
Percent of Respondents
Figure 2 Sources of learning about Steve Irwin’s death.
talking to others about his death (M=6.3, range =0 to 200, SD =12.4). Those
more involved with Irwin discussed his death with more people (ß=.17, p<.001)
and spent more time discussing his death with others (ß=.22, p<.001).
Finally, the last hypothesis predicted that respondents who exhibited stronger
involvement with Steve Irwin would more likely visit his organization’s website and
would more likely give a financial donation to his organization, Wildlife Warriors.
Results also support this hypothesis. Those who visited the Wildlife Warriors website
had an average level of involvement with Irwin of 40.6 (on the 12 60 involvement
scale), compared with those who did not visit the site, who had an average level of
involvement of 30.3, t(1642) =20.1, p<.001.Respondents who reported giving a
financial donation to Wildlife Warriors had an average level of involvement of 42.7
with Irwin as compared to those who did not give a financial donation, who had an
average level of involvement of 33.2, t(347) =10.7, p<.001.In summary, all four
hypotheses are supported by the research results.
Predictors of involvement
General linear model regression analyses were also conducted to explore various
predictors of involvement with Steve Irwin. In the first analysis, owning Steve
Irwin memorabilia and being a member of a wildlife foundation were tested as
predictors of involvement. As expected, those who owned memorabilia exhibited
stronger involvement with Irwin (t(63.3) =6.1, p<.001) but wildlife membership
had no effect on involvement (t(1650) =1.8, p=.068). In a second analysis, age,
gender, ethnicity, education, and political affiliation were analyzed as predictors of
involvement with Irwin. Only education produced unique variance in involvement, as
those with a high school education or who were still receiving their primary education
Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73–93 ©2010 International Communication Association 85
Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
were more involved with Irwin than those with more education, F(4, 1614) =65.1,
p<.001.Although age and education were obviously correlated, the unique variance
attributed to age alone was not significant. Overall, results show that both men and
women of all ages and ethnicities were involved with Irwin. Posthoc comparisons
show that only high school students had a slightly higher level of involvement with
Irwin than did other educational groups.
Open essay question
The online survey concluded with an open ended question: ‘‘What values do you
think Steve Irwin lived by and what impact has his death had on you personally?’’
The opportunity for respondents to use their own words to express their thoughts
and feelings proved to be a rich source of information for this study.
Most of the values attributed to Steve Irwin were positive and presented a
description of a man who loved his work and his family. The characteristics most
associated with Steve Irwin were that he was passionate, respectful, loving, and honest.
For example, one respondent stated: ‘‘Steve Irwin treated every person and animal
with the same unwavering honesty and respect.’’ Another respondent spoke for
many in saying, ‘‘Steve Irwin was very passionate about life and about the animals.’’
Another sentiment felt by many is seen in this respondent’s words: ‘‘I think that he
lived for what he believed in, and that he truly loved his family. I am very surprised
at just how much impact his death has had on me. I do not usually react this way
when a famous person dies. I think that it is different this time because the man truly
felt like part of the family, even though I have never met him.’’ A few respondents
thought Irwin was a ‘‘showboat’’ and ‘‘lived for the publicity.’’ A few even thought he
went too far by taunting the animals that were on his show, but the majority felt that
he was a conservationist that ‘‘shows us how to live with animals.’’ Many, however, of
those who thought he sometimes acted irresponsibly still said they ‘‘enjoyed watching
him’’ on television.
As expected, the majority of respondents felt that he was an educator and
entertainer who possessed a genuine spirit who influenced the ideas and values of
people from many different cultures about the place of respect and care for animals
in our world. Most respondents saw Irwin as an ordinary guy who ‘‘lived life to the
fullest,’’ a phrase often used in reference to him. Clearly several people identified
with Irwin and his love not only for animals but for his family. As one respondent
stated, ‘‘I think the importance of family love was a big value he embodied. He was
on a show talking about his mom and his grieving was so heartfelt that I cried along
with him and got up and called my own father.’’ People of all ages could identify with
Steve Irwin and he was seen as ‘‘role model’’ and in death a ‘‘hero’’ for many. One
respondent expressed his sentiment this way: ‘‘As a young man, I did not cry when
Elvis died... however, I did for Steve. I have two children myself; I haven’t seen or
been able to talk to them in almost 2 years. However, I know that my children cried
as well. My son, T.J., loved the croc hunter. He was my son’s hero, as well as mine.’’
86 Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73– 93 ©2010 International Communication Association
W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
Clearly one can see the close relationship some of the audience members felt they
had with this ‘‘ordinary’’ celebrity.
Discussion
Consistent with studies of other celebrities, news of Steve Irwin’s death spread rapidly
among those seeking information about him on the Internet and likely diffused
rapidly among the general public. Consider that the 1,800 respondents in this study
talked to more than 30,000 people collectively for more than 11,300 h in total about
his death. Even more interesting was the finding that over half of the respondents
followed the continuing news about Irwin’s death over the Internet. Not only did
the respondents in this study search on the web for news about Irwin, but many of
them continued to rely on the web rather than turning to alternate news sources.
Previous research has shown that it is not uncommon to learn about important
events in the lives of celebrities through television first, depending on the time of day
of the event, and then through interpersonal networks (Basil & Brown, 1994; Brown
et al., 2001). Once respondents learned of Irwin’s death, they talked with others in
their interpersonal communication networks about Irwin and stayed connected to
the Internet for more news instead of following the story primarily from television.
This finding might be expected of a sample of Internet users; nonetheless, results add
to the growing evidence that the Internet is increasingly becoming a primary source
of news, particularly among young people (Althaus & Tewksbury, 2000; Downing,
2006; Horrigan, 2006; Telecom Asia, 2006).
The research question results and confirmation of the first hypothesis also
reinforce the observation that people who are involved with celebrity heroes actively
seek out media to learn more about their lives, especially when dramatic events
occur such as a wedding, accident, or death (Brown & Fraser, 2007). News media
actively feed the demand for more information about the lives of celebrities, creating
a flurry of coverage to satisfy the demand for more information. Recognizing this
potential media frenzy and Irwin’s noncelebrity predisposition (Irwin did not seek
the trappings of celebrity status), his parents and his wife Terri worked hard to
control the media onslaught, turning down an offer for a state funeral and opting
for a smaller and more controlled memorial service. Irwin’s family apparently
succeeded in preventing his memorial service from becoming a public spectacle
like that of other celebrities such as NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt, who was given
multiple memorial services at race tracks throughout the southern United States,
and John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was publically memorialized by the President of the
United States and a number of prominent government officials. This purposeful
‘‘downplaying’’ of Irwin’s celebrity and statements by the family to have a simple
memorial service was reflected in the small percentage of respondents, only 6.9%, who
reported that they planned to watch Irwin’s televised memorial service on Animal
Planet.
Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73–93 ©2010 International Communication Association 87
Steve Irwin’s Influence W. J. Brown
Results of this study also reinforce the understanding that increased involvement
with celebrities leads to increased social influence. Steve Irwin’s organization’s
website, Wildlife Warriors, was inundated with traffic after his death, and donations
rose dramatically through the website. Donations to Wildlife Warriors reached
$2,000,000 in October of 2006 through the distribution of Irwin’s DVD memorial
(The Sydney Morning Herald, 2006). English songwriter Lonnie Lee recorded a tribute
song to Irwin titled Crikey Crikey, which school children have used to raise funds
for Wildlife Warriors (see http://www.lonnielee.com/crikeysong.htm). It was not
unexpected that the song identifies Irwin as a real-life hero. Involvement was a strong
predictor of expressing support for wildlife conservation and for financially giving
to Irwin’s wildlife foundation. Irwin’s ability to fundraise for wildlife conservation
causes will likely continue long after his death.
Finally, this study builds upon previous studies that indicate the processes of
parasocial interaction and identification can motivate people to take on the social
causes of the celebrities with whom they are strongly involved. To what degree Brad
Pitt and Angelina Jolie can use their celebrity appeal to motivate people to proactively
stop genocide, or to what extent Bono can use his status to convince people to
pressure Western governments to forgive debt of developing countries, may depend,
in part, on how strongly people engage in identification with them. Many well-known
celebrities have social causes that they actively seek public participation. Such issues
should be explored by communication scholars.
Limitations and future research
Survey research, even with the inclusion of open questions yielding qualitative
data, cannot fully capture the processes by which people develop psychological and
emotional bonds with celebrities. The self-selection bias of the sample clearly limits
generalizing these findings beyond those who were already interested in Steve Irwin
and who wanted to know more about his death. Caution must be particularly used
when interpreting the research question results. However, it is important to note that
involvement with Irwin varied greatly among the respondents and was not high on
average for the entire sample. The hypothesized relationships may not be influenced
significantly by the sample selection (see Basil, Brown, & Bocarnea, 2002 for a
thorough explanation), and thus the supported predictions do add to our knowledge
of celebrity influence.
The tremendous potential for celebrities, particularly those perceived as heroes,
to advance social issues and rally public opinion and action to meet critical needs is
substantial and relevant. Although the present study was only a snapshot of social
influence during a 5-day period, it nevertheless reinforces previous research that
shows celebrities can be an important source of social influence. Future studies
should continue to assess the efforts of celebrity heroes like Steve Irwin and their
ability to influence attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. One out of every five people in this
survey who visited the Wildlife Warriors website gave a donation to the organization.
The finding that more than two thirds of the respondents in this study reported that
88 Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73– 93 ©2010 International Communication Association
W. J. Brown Steve Irwin’s Influence
Steve Irvin demonstrated in his life the values they want to live by reinforces the
potential power of celebrity heroes. Irwin would be the first one to shout ‘‘crikey’’
if he knew the overwhelming response to his passing and the predicted long-term
effects he may have on Earth’s animal kingdom.
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Journal of Communication 60 (2010) 73–93 ©2010 International Communication Association 93
L’influence de Steve Irwin sur la préservation de la faune
William J. Brown
La présente étude évalue l’attachement du public à la populaire personnalité télévisuelle Steve
Irwin, qui est décédé tragiquement au faîte de sa carrière. Un sondage mené auprès de 1800
consommateurs de médias révèle qu’Irwin était perçu comme un héros et un modèle pour la
préservation de la faune. La nouvelle de sa mort s’est rapidement répandue à travers le monde,
suscitant les discussions et les recherches sur Internet. Les personnes plus attachées à Irwin ont
parlé davantage et plus longtemps de sa mort et, tel que supposé, elles étaient plus susceptibles
d’accroître leur appui à la préservation de la faune. Les effets de l’attachment à Irwin étaient
présents à travers tous les groupes d’âge, les degrés d’éducation et les groupes ethniques et peu
importe le genre. Les conséquences de ces résultats pour l’influence internationale de célébrités
populaires sont commentées.
DerEinflussvonSteveIrwinaufdieWildnis
WilliamJ.Brown
DieaktuelleStudieuntersuchtdasPublikumsinvolvementmitderpopulärenTV
PersönlichkeitSteveIrwin,derauftragischeWeiseaufdemHöhepunktseinerKarriereums
Lebenkam.EineUmfrageunter1.800Mediennutzernzeigte,dassIrwinalsHeldund
RollenmodellfürdenNaturschutzwahrgenommenwird.DieNachrichtvonseinemTodhat
sichschnellundglobalverbreitet,undzuinterpersonalemDialogundInternetrecherchen
geführt.Jene,diestarkermitIrwininvolviertwaren,redetenmehrundlängerüberseinen
TodundsetztensichhypothesenkonformhäufigerfürdenUmweltschutzein.DieEffektedes
InvolvementsmitIrwinbliebenüberAltersgruppen,Bildungsschichten,ethnischeGruppe
undGeschlechthinauserhalten.ImplikationenderErgebnissezuminternationalenEinfluss
einesStarswerdendiskutiert.
La Influencia de Steve Irwin sobre la
Conservación de la Vida Salvaje
William J. Brown
School of Communication & the Arts, Regent University, 1000 Regent University Drive,
Virginia Beach,
VA 23464, USA
Resumen
El estudio presente evalúa el involucramiento de la audiencia con el personaje de la televisión
popular, Steve Irwin, quien murió trágicamente en el pico de su carrera. Una encuesta a 1,800
consumidores de los medios reveló que Irwin fue percibido como un héroe y un modelo de
conducta para la conservación de la vida salvaje. Las noticias sobre su muerte se expandieron
rápidamente y globalmente, promoviendo diálogo interpersonal y búsquedas en el Internet.
Aquellos más involucrados con Irwin hablaron más y más largo sobre su muerte, y, como se
hipotetizó, incrementaron más probablemente su apoyo a la conservación de la vida salvaje. Los
efectos del involucramiento con Irwin se extendieron a través de grupos de edades, niveles
educativos, grupos étnicos, y género. Las implicancias de estos hallazgos sobre la influencia
internacional de las celebridades populares son discutidas.
야생동물보존에 대한 Steve Irwin’s 영항력
William J. Brown
School of Communication & the Arts, Regent University, 1000 Regent University Drive,
Virginia Beach,
VA 23464, USA
본 연구는 유명한 텔레비젼 인사이나 비극적으로 사망한 Steve Irwin과 시청자관여를 연
구한 것이다. 1,800명의 시청자를 대상으로 한 조사는 Steve Irwin이 영웅으로 인식되어
있으며, 야생동물 보존을 위한 역할모델로 인지되어 있다는 것을 보여주고 있다. 그의 사
망소식은 재빠르게, 전세계적으로 전파되었으며, 개인간 대화와 인터넷 조사를 촉진하였
. Steve Irwin과 높은 정도로 연계되어 있는 사람들일수록 그의 사망에 대해 더욱 많이,
그리고 더욱 길게 이야기를 하였으며, 가정한바대로, 야생동물보존에 대한 그들의 지지
를 증가시킬 것으로 나타났다. Steve Irwin과의 관여 효과는 나이, 교육정도, 인종, 그리고
젠더에 관계없이 나타났다. 유명한 인사들의 국제적영향에 대한 이러한 발견들의 함의들
이 논의되었다.
史蒂夫欧文对野生动物保护的影响
William J. Brown
美国Regent大学传播与艺术学院
【摘要:】
本研究探讨了观众对不幸在职业生涯高峰去世的电视名人史蒂夫欧文的沉
迷程度。1800 位媒介消费者的调查表明,欧文被认为是一个英雄和保护野生
动物的榜样。他死亡的消息在全球范围内迅速蔓延,加速了人际对话和网络搜索。
那些对欧文沉迷程度较深的人会更多、更长时间地谈及他的去世,并且正如本文
的假设所言,他们也更有可能增加对野生动物保护的支持。对欧文的沉迷效应是
超越了年龄教育程度、民族和性别的。本文也就名人的国际影响进行了讨论。
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