Moral Panics and the Media

A moral panic is an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality or behaviour of a group in society.

Moral Panic Theory is strongly related to labelling theory, in fact moral panic theory is really labelling theory applied to the media – instead of the agent of social control doing the labelling, it is the media.

Two related key terms include folk devils and deviancy amplification

A folk devil is the subject of a moral panic – the group who the media is focussing on, the group who is being targeted for exaggerated reporting.

Deviancy Amplification is one of the alleged consequences of a moral panic – it is where a group becomes more deviant as a result of media exaggeration of their deviance. It is very similar to the Self Fulfilling Prophecy.

As with just about anything in life, all of this is much easier to understand with an example:

Stan Cohen’s (1972) study of the Mods and Rockers

Stan Cohen’s (1972) first developed the concept of the ‘moral panic’ in his study of the relationship between the media and the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s.

The Mods and Rockers were two working class youth subcultures, the mods famously riding scooters and dressing in smart clothes such as suits, and the rockers riding larger motorbikes and dressing in leathers.

These were also two of the first youth subcultures in consumer society, and initially they existed peacefully side by side – they were really just about style and music and the members of each were primarily concerned with having a good time.

However, during one bank holiday weekend in Clacton in 1964, where both mods and rockers visited to party, there were some minor acts of Vandalism and some violence between the two groups, this then led to the media turning up at the next big Bank Holiday weekend in Brighton (also 1964) ‘ready’ to report on any disturbances.

Once again at Brighton there was also some minor vandalism and violence between the mods and rockers, but this time the media were present and produced (according to Cohen) some extremely exaggerated reports about the extent of the violence between the two groups.

This had the effect of generating concern among the general public and the police then responded to this increased public fear and perceived threat to social order by policing future mods and rockers events more heavily and being more likely to arrest youths from either subculture for deviant behaviour (whether violent or not).

A further consequence of the exaggerated media reporting was that the mods and rockers came to see themselves as opposed to each other, something which hadn’t been the case before the media exaggeration.

Some further examples of moral panics

There have been several examples of issues which might be regarded as Moral Panics:

  • Inner city mugging by black youths, as outlined by Stuart Hall in Policing the Crisis
  • Punks and Skinheads
  • Football Hooligans
  • Pedophiles
  • Islamic Terrorists
  • Benefit Culture

NB all of the above examples are only ‘possible’ examples of moral panics, see criticisms below.

Criticisms of moral panic theory

  • Cohen’s formulation of moral panic theory assumes that the audience are passive, but audiences today are much more active and able to critically evaluate media content, which means moral panics are less likely.
  • Thornton (1995) found that the media failed to generate a moral panic over rave culture, mainly because youth culture had become mainstream by that point, as had the taking of drugs such as ecstasy.
  • There are various reasons my ‘panics’ may not occur even if the media exaggerate the deviance of some groups – the media also exaggerate the police’s ability to deal with deviance and exaggerated reporting of deviance is so common these days that people are just desensitized to its effects.
  • Finally, some concerns which some may call moral panics may be legitimate – such as concerns over child abuse or rising knife crime today.
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