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What is Moral Panic?

Discuss about the Role of media in creation of contemporary moral panic.

Moral panic is a term used to mean a sense of fear or worry in the society regarding some evil threats to its wellbeing (Goode, 2010). According to the dictionary of sociology, moral panic is generally an act of moral entrepreneurs or mass media which arouses excessive concern of the society over an issue (CTI Reviews, 2011). Mass media is a term used for varied communication technologies which can be used to reach a large number of audiences (Howitt, 2013). Mass media involves broadcast media like television and radio; print media like newspapers and digital media like social media and online portals.

Mass media has great reach and appeal for a large number of people (Frlix, 2018). Any news can spread from one end of the globe to another in a few minutes through mass media (Knudse, 2014). Therefore, it is extremely influential force which affects human thinking, judgement, emotions and sense of fear and wellbeing.

The concept of moral panic was first propounded by criminologist and thinker, Stanley Cohan in his book in 1972 namely folk devils and moral panic (Cohen, 2011). Cohen observed in his book that due to its reach and influence, media has the power and the ability to label a certain group or people as folk devils (Cohen, 2011).  Folk devils are people or groups labelled by media as deviant (Petley, 2013). These people are considered as a threat to social values and are depicted by media as clear villains of social order (Pike, 2011). These folk devils are then blamed by the media for societal problems or are exaggeratedly shown as a threat to the society’s value system.


Media may continuously target this group in a negative way and report the scale of the problem in an exaggerated manner (Cohen, 2011). This can stimulate hatred, worry, fear and anxiety in the society against a certain group or person. For example, a certain ethnicity or a race may be considered deviant by a political group. The media may pick this up and report it in a way that this ethnic group sounds like a clear villain (O'Neill, 2012). This group may or may not be a threat to the society. Furthermore, the scale of the threat may not be as large as reported. This leads to false implication of people who may just have a different outlook.

In his book Cohen has given example of Mods and Rockers (Marsh & Melville, 2014). These were two groups of working teenagers at a sea side resort in USA in 1960s. The mods conformed to the societal norms of lifestyle by wearing smart clothes, riding scooters and listening to pop music (Marsh & Melville, 2014). On the other hand, rockers lived in a way which was deviant from the societal norms. They wore leather jackets, listened to rock and roll and rode motorbikes. On a certain weekend there was a beach scuffle and some huts were broken (Marsh & Melville, 2014). As per Cohan there was minimal damage. However, the media reacted as if it was a disaster. (Marsh & Melville, 2014). The media exaggerated the numbers involved and the scale of the violence. They symbolised the occurrence with rockers and their lifestyle. Therefore, the media created a folk devil and associated youth violence with those youth who listen to rock and roll and ride bikes (Marsh & Melville, 2014). As a result of this negative propaganda a stereotype was created which generated hysteria, panic and worry in the society. However, the objective fact is that not all such people are violent (Cohen, 2011) According to Cohen media hype generates panic in society over any issue, big or small.

The Relationship between Mass Media and Moral Panic

Apparently it can be argued that, Cohen’s theory of media creation of folk devils has become outdated (Hayward, 2009). In modern times society has become more liberal and accepting of deviant behaviour in terms of fashions, trends, values and beliefs (Humphrey, 2011).  However, in the modern world the amount of information which the audience receives has also increased (Marsh & Melville, 2014). There are many more news channels, many more newspapers and then there is the digital media to take the news from shore to shore (Rowbotham, 2017). When Cohen wrote his book, the scale of exaggeration by media might have been limited to just a city or two. However, now if any social problem occurs it can be conveyed to the entire globe in a matter of minutes (Petley, 2013). Therefore, any panic created by media has more impact in the modern time than ever before.

 Mass media is one of the key factors in creating moral panic because of the way in which message is sent across (Thiel-Stern, 2014). Any information which is broadcast through media has the potential of evoking worry and fear in the minds of those receiving it as people may perceive it as having higher importance than it actually has.


In the contemporary world mass media has acquired greater reach that ever before (Frlix, 2018). News and information about global happenings is at one click of most people’s fingers. Digital platforms, televise and print media continuously bombard people with news and information on happenings around the world (Howitt, 2013). Compared to the past times people are more aware of occurrences of any type across the world (Petley, 2013), Therefore, media messages regarding these happenings have a huge psychological impact on people. For example, news of tension on the borders of a far way nation may arouse fear of a nuclear war among people due to the manner in which it is reported by the media.

Moral panic can be incited by media in a number of ways. One way is be giving importance to moral entrepreneurs (Goode, 2010). Moral entrepreneurs are people or groups who create pressure on the audience to conform to their views (Goode, 2010).

To cite an example, a group of people may not want a certain book to be published because they consider it as insulting to a certain community (Howitt, 2013). Their perception may or may not be correct. They may use media to create propaganda against the book, its writer and the publishing house. The media may contribute to this propaganda in the name of reporting facts. The audience may get information about activities of this group against the book on a daily basis. This may result in acceptance by the audience that the book has content which insults a certain community (Goode, 2010). Therefore, the audience may pass judgement against the book without reading it due to propaganda by the moral entrepreneur fuelled by the media. The media may not intentionally be a party to propaganda by the moral entrepreneurs. However, by reporting their activities it becomes a reason for creating moral panic (Cohen, 2011). Sociologists term this as an exaggerated overreaction to a certain perspective or problem by the society generally accelerated due to media involvement.

The Concept of Folk Devils and Exaggerated News

In some cases media may also exaggerate an issue or an occurrence and report it in a way that it seems bigger than it actually is (Frlix, 2018). For example, while reporting natural calamities like floods and earthquakes media sometimes keeps on reporting and showing pictures of a single happening again and again. This leads to audience perceiving the impact of the calamity as larger than it actually is (Goode, 2010).Hence, exaggerated accounts give rise to false stories and panic.

Modern society may not react with panic over deviant beliefs or value systems. However, in the modern times there are other panic triggers that have come about to create fear and anxiety (Goode, 2010). Any information and reporting by media on disease and destruction can result in moral panic. For example, the news about mad cow disease and swine flu spread like wild fire creating panic, worry and anxiety (Frlix, 2018). Therefore, the nature of moral panic creation by the media might have changed but its impact has not.


Modern audience is used to the shock stories of the media (Howitt, 2013). They no longer react like manic to exaggerated versions of happenings. In the contemporary world people get information about youth gang war, kid’s fights, terrorism, riots etc. The information may not shock the audience any more or create immediate panic. However, an overdose of such information can create stereotypes in the mind of the audience (Marsh & Melville, 2014). For example, after continuously watching news of mugging by hooded youth, people may get terrified after seeing a hooded youth pass by (Goode, 2010). However, every hooded youth is not dangerous. Therefore, repeated and exaggerated news affects the human mind in a way that its starts panicking in normal situations (Krinsky, 2016). Similar is the case with terrorism. Terrorism is a grave global problem. However, media has stereotyped certain type of people or certain ethnicity with terrorism and people panic whenever such people are seen (Marsh & Melville, 2014). Whereas, the truth is that all people from a race cannot be terrorists.

In the global world that we live in such moral panics get continuously created by the media. These are repeated and exaggerated and result in heightened concern of society towards the issue (Goode, 2010). The issues causing concern might have changed from youth fashion to global nuclear war and terrorism but the situation is still the same.

Media has a huge role to play in creating moral panic. Media makes people create stereotype opinions about issues and happenings (Goode, 2010), People form judgements without knowing all the facts and then start associating certain social groups as a threat to society (Howitt, 2013). Continuous coverage from media sensationalises a happening and the stereotyped groups are labelled as criminals or rule barkers. This results in unwarranted attention from political and judicial systems as well (Petley, 2013). It may even lead to such groups being hassled, singled out, attacked and implicated.

Examples of Moral Panic Created by Media


In the modern world reporting has become sensationalist (Howitt, 2013). Additionally, threats facing the society have increased. For example, we have problems like child abuse, kidnapping, murders etc. These problems are magnified by the media are blown out of proportion. Media may also give its own solutions to the issues which may not be realistic (Howitt, 2013). The case of Soham sisters kidnapping and murder in England in 2002, is an example of such sensationalism (Marsh I. , 2014). The victims were 10 year old sisters who were kidnapped from their school and murdered. Investigations found the deed was done by the school caretaker. Research also shows that children are mostly harmed by people they already know. However, media sensationalised this news and created hype about child muggers (Marsh & Melville, 2014). Media created moral panic and made people believe that children require complete supervision at all time as there is some social threat on them.

Due to their reach and manner of reporting media has the ability to influence people’s attitude towards deviant groups (Goode, 2010).  It has been said on many occasions by social theorists that a free media is essential for healthy development of a society (Knudse, 2014). However, media should also be more responsible regarding the news and information it shares. If media behaves more responsibly, it can use its ability to educate the audience regarding various issues (Frlix, 2018). Media should report facts without sensationalising them and without passing judgements and creating folk devils. A responsible media is a great need of the modern society (Goode, 2010). It can help in spreading correct information and reduction of fear, worry and anxiety in the society. Through responsible media reporting positive awareness about the issues can be spread.

Conclusion

Moral panic in the modern world has become a pan global phenomenon. Additionally, global issues like terrorism, civil wars, political issues and riots are reported in a way that they create fear in the society. Furthermore, media plays a vital role in pinpointing villain in every issue. This hinders objective judgement of people and gives rise to unnecessary panic. However, if the media starts portraying facts to increase awareness and objectivity the problem can be reduced

References

Cohen, S. (2011). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Reprint ed.). Didcot: Taylor & Francis.

CTI Reviews. (2011). The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology. Virginia: Cram101 Textbook Reviews.

Frlix, G. (2018). The Impact of the New Media on Civil and International Conflic. Munich: GRIN Verlag.

Goode, E. (2010). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Hayward, K. (2009). Fifty Key Thinkers in Criminology. New York: Routledge.

Howitt, D. (2013). The Mass Media & Social Problems. New York: Elsevier.

Humphrey. (2011). Deviant Behavior. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

Knudse, B. T. (2014). Global Media, Biopolitics, and Affect: Politicizing Bodily Vulnerability. New York: Routledge.

Krinsky, C. (2016). The Ashgate Research Companion to Moral Panics. New York: Routledge.

Marsh, I. (2014). Crime, Justice and the Media. New York: Routledge.

Marsh, I., & Melville, G. (2014). Moral panics and the British media–a look at some contemporary ‘folk devils. Internet Journal of Criminology, 1(1), 1-21.

O'Neill, ,. M. (2012). Transgressive Imaginations: Crime, Deviance and Culture. Berlin: Springer.

Petley, J. (2013). Moral Panics in the Contemporary World. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA,.

Pike, E. (2011). The active aging agenda, old folk devils and a new moral panic. sociology of Sport Journal, 28(2), 229-225.

Rowbotham, J. a. (2017). Behaving Badly: Social Panic and Moral Outrage-Victorian and Modern Parallels. New York: Routledge.

Thiel-Stern, S. (2014). From the Dance Hall to Facebook: Teen Girls, Mass Media, and Moral Panic in the United States,. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press

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