Corporate scandal or industry corruption? how the VW emissions crisis was framed in public print media and company communication
Thesis DisciplineBusiness Administration
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Commerce
On 3 September 2015, the Volkswagen emissions scandal was dramatically drawn to the public’s attention when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered the company was intentionally installing ‘defeat’ software to misrepresent its diesel cars’ exhaust emission levels. The scandal resulted in a global recall of hundreds of thousands of cars, billions of dollars in fines and a loss of reputation for the company. This research adopted an interpretive perspective and a social constructionist ontological position to explore how public print media together with the company constructed the emissions scandal. To do this, I applied a framing analysis that involved examining newspaper articles from seven countries and the company’s website articles over 12 months, from the scandal’s discovery in September 2015 until the settlement of lawsuits in September 2016. Seventy one company website communications from Volkswagen and 751 newspaper articles from The Guardian, The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, China Daily, The Times of India, O GLOBO and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung were collected. These represent the most influential of the digitally accessible newspapers in Volkswagen’s seven most important international car markets. The analysis involved two phases: First, the articles were subjected to a preliminary analysis using Leximancer and NVivo software to identify potential frames that could arise in the framing analysis. Secondly, a framing analysis was applied to those articles to identify dominant frames, recognise recurring patterns, and identify the similarities and differences between the newspapers and the company’s communications. There were five key findings. First, 10 dominant frames occurred in both the global and local reporting. Secondly, of these the frames, the company accountability, individual accountability, investigative, scandal, and solution frames appeared consistently. Thirdly, these emerged at the same point on the scandal’s timeline which points to the frames being used to show the story’s progression and to respond to events. Fourthly, the cooperation, future, accepting accountability, redemption, solution and staff restructuring frames constantly appeared in the company’s online communications. Fifthly, together these findings revealed that the print media and Volkswagen operated in parallel worlds characterised by a complete lack of ideational engagement. This research represents the first study to compare the framing of the Volkswagen emissions scandal in public print media with the company’s communications, both across countries and over time. The findings from this study reinforce the value of employing framing analysis to understand the degree of collaboration between media and a corporate across a developing corporate risk, providing valuable insights into the degree to which the media and company communications are synchronised during a scandal as well as filling a gap in the current literature on the Volkswagen emissions scandal.