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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The ‘epidemic’ of teens addicted to gambling – a moral panic with little substance?

The Gambling Commission recently released its latest 2018 ‘Young People and Gambling Report’, triggering some dramatic headlines:

Headlines from The Independent and The Daily Mail.

The news reports tended to focus on three statistics to support their narrative of ‘teens in crisis’:

  • 55 000 children under 16 were categorised as ‘problem gamblers’, or 1.7% of the population, a figure which has quadrupled in two years.
  • There were a further 75 000 young people ‘at risk’ of becoming problem gamblers.
  • 450 000 13-18 year olds gambled at least once a week, equivalent to 14% of the population.

The news reports then tended to Segway into the underlying reasons explaining the increasing numbers of ‘teens in crisis’, blaming primarily the increase in T.V. adverts promoting gambling and ‘loot boxes’ in video games.

However, this seems to be just a moral panic….

If you take the time to actually read the latest report by the Gambling Commission (available here) it appears that there isn’t really an epidemic at all…. This really is just a case of a pure media constructed moral panic.

The number of teens with serious gambling problems has increased, but this is due to changes in sampling over the two years:

The report explicitly states:

>”The differences can largely be attributed to a larger number of respondents qualifying for the screening questions than in previous years, due to the addition of a question which enabled us to identify past 12 month gamblers more accurately than before.”

Looked at in the long term, the number of teens gambling is going down:

Granted, there’s been a small upturn in recent years, but the overall trend is definitely down, as it is with drinking and drug use. Basically, the kids are alright!

Of the ‘450K teens who have gambled in the last week, they’re mainly playing cards’!

So teens are mainly playing actual cards with their friends, as well as the odd scratch card. Just like we all did when we were teenagers, it’s just that now this is a ‘problem’ rather than kids just doing what kids do, which is what it was back in the late 80s!

Final Thoughts…

Maybe a more honest headline would have been:

‘Despite advertisers goading them into wasting their money, only 1.7% of young people have a problem with gambling’.

I don’t want to seem flippant, 1.7% of teens, or 55K people, is a lot of people (roughly equivalent to the current number of active steem accounts!), but it’s not enough to claim there is a ‘significant. social problem’. If we were talking about unemployment, inflation, educational underachievement, victims of crime, <2% would be a sign that at the societal level, everything’s basically OK.

So in brief, and on the whole, the kids are alright! 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like this related posts on the possible moral panic over video games disorder

Picture sources 

The Indpendent – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/child-gambling-problem-betting-tv-adverts-a8643926.html

The Daily Mail – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6411759/Epidemic-child-gamblers-Experts-blame-explosion-TV-adverts.html

Gambling stats – https://www.gamblingcommission.gov.uk/PDF/survey-data/Young-People-and-Gambling-2018-Report.pdf

The Croydon Cat Killer: The Perfect Moral Panic for our Age?

Police may have just found the culprit behind a horrific moggy murder spree which started in Croydon in October 2015.

Three years ago, the decapitated bodies of cats began be show up in various locations around Croydon, South London. They appeared to have been killed by blunt force trauma and then the bodies torn apart with various body-parts being deposited in places which seemed to have been carefully selected – such as on the owner’s doorstep or outside children’s playgrounds.

Local animal rights group SNARL (‘South Norward Animal Rescue Liberty’) hypothesized that this was the work of a psychopath, and, fearing the killing might spread to humans, scoured the country, uncovering hundreds of similar cases.

Investigation Closed

Despite the hundreds of alleged cases reported to the police over the past three years, not one of them was ever linked with any actual hard evidence of an individual actually committing a crime. However, in three of the cases there was CCTV footage of foxes in the area carrying cat body parts.

The police have now concluded that these ‘moggy murders’ were in fact a result of cats being hit by cars (which explains the blunt force trauma) and foxes then playing around with the dead bodies.

Given that both of these events are fairly well-known about, this raises the question of why there was ever a media-event surrounding the ‘Croydon Cat Killer’ in the first place…?

A Moral Panic Fit for a Culture of Fear?

This is clearly a ‘moral panic‘ (an exaggerated outburst of public concern) – given that animals can’t officially commit murder.  Maybe this hit the headlines because humans love to make up stories, and construct outrageous villains, and the idea of a serial killer stalking our streets after our pets titillates us.

We also need to consider the role of the moral entrepreneurs: i.e. SNARL…. not doubt this gave the activists something to do, and some status for a few years.

Finally, this  in well with the place of our pets in our families. Pets, after all, are part of the family. At least according to the Personal Life Perspective.

Written for education purposes!

Sources 

The WEEK, 29 September 2018.

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