Moral Panic

The term moral panic was first coined by Stanley Cohen in his 1987 seminal work, Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Cohen defined moral panic as an occasional or random episode that creates a widespread societal concern that principles and values held dear by society might be in peril. In Cohen's words, the moral panic is characterized by "a condition, episode, person or group of persons [who] become defined as a threat to societal values and interests."

According to Cohen, at a certain point, the mass media put their imprint on a potential episode of moral panic and styles it so that the facts are exaggerated or amplified. At this point, the event becomes a national issue. Had the mass media not become involved, states Cohen in his book, what has become a huge affair might have remained only a local matter.

Cohen began studying the subject of moral panics following an initial exploration of youth culture and how, throughout the ages, adults feared such culture would jeopardize the social orders of their worlds. Moral panics have been spread in reaction to such diverse generational examples as flappers, rockers, Hell's Angels, hippies and skinheads. In every case, these youth cultures come to be associated with specific forms of violence. The violence, in turn, tends to provoke an emotional reaction from the public and becomes a topic in its own right. Political demonstrations, vandalism, drug abuse and rough behavior on the football field all manage to strike chords in public opinion, but according to Cohen, only in the case where the mass media become involved and spread the details, do these topics cause widespread interest and fear.

Cohen's work focused in the main on the Mods and Rockers of the 1960s and how they were perceived and treated by the public. According to Cohen, the main reason that these 1960s youth were considered a threat was due to the way they were represented by the mass media. The media would sensationalize an event and then call for punitive action against the offenders. Cohen calls this "control culture."

In the 1997 work The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain, John Eldridge noted, "In the process and as part of the dramatic element, scapegoats and folk devils are located and are woven into the narrative." When society is confronted by the failure of all it has created, it finds it impossible to bear the responsibility for what has transpired. As a result, society looks for someone else to incriminate.

By amplifying events, the media appeal to this weakness of the public: the need to find a scapegoat. The public is ready and willing to accept the opinions and suggested courses of action fed them by the media. The media find authoritative figures to trumpet these ideas, for instance, editors, politicians and bishops, and Cohen calls these figures the "moral barricade." So-called experts are called in to give their opinions as well. As these voices combine, they end up forming a narrative of agreement, a sort of diagnosis of the problem and a method to effect positive change. The problem, as it is perceived, either dies down and disappears or changes for the worse.

Sometimes the subject of a moral panic is not particularly new but has been around for quite some time; a specific event may trigger a renewed sense of the significance of an old issue. At times, a moral panic will come and go in haste and will soon be forgotten. But in other cases, the repercussions or consequences of a moral panic last so long and have such a strong impact that social or legal policy is altered. When this happens, Eldridge says that something has occurred to affect the way a society perceives itself.

Despite Cohen's contention that moral panics can only be created with an assist from mass media, it might be argued that moral panics are far older than the media. The Salem Witch trials of 1692, for example, occurred long before CNN, yet they created a sense of hysteria among the people at that time. Still, it cannot be denied that the media have an agenda in amplifying incidents, making them more important than they might otherwise be deemed, for the sake of having something newsworthy to air and generate ratings. On the other hand, concludes Cohen, the public must learn to accept responsibility for its failures and not to be so easily led into accepting the scapegoats fed to it by the media.

Moral Panic: Selected full-text books and articles

Moral Panics By Kenneth Thompson Routledge, 1998
Critical Readings: Moral Panics and the Media By Chas Critcher Open University Press, 2006
Thinking about Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture By Michael Tonry Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian's tip: Chap. 4 "Moral Panics and 'Windows of Opportunity'"
The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain By John Eldridge; Jenny Kitzinger; Kevin Williams Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian's tip: Chap. Five "Moral Panics, Media Scares, and Real Problems"
Journalism: Critical Issues By Stuart Allan Open University Press, 2005
Librarian's tip: Chap. 13 "Mighty Dread: Journalism and Moral Panics"
Extremes of Otherness: Media Images of Social Exclusion By Greer, Chris; Jewkes, Yvonne Social Justice, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 2005
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Technoculture: From Alphabet to Cybersex By Lelia Green Allen & Unwin, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Moral Panics" begins on p. 148
States and Illegal Practices By Josiah Mcc. Heyman Berg, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Adolescent Violence, State Processes, and the Local Context of Moral Panic"
No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet By Pamela Donovan Routledge, 2004
Librarian's tip: "Moral Panics and Crime Legends" begins on p. 165
Protecting Our Children from Internet Smut: Moral Duty or Moral Panic? By Wilkins, Julia The Humanist, Vol. 57, No. 5, September-October 1997
Youth Crime, Moral Panics, and the News: The Conspiracy against the Marginalized in Canada By Schissel, Bernard Social Justice, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 1997
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Raves, Risks and the Ecstacy Panic: A Case Study in the Subversive Nature of Moral Regulation (1) By Hier, Sean P Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 2002
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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