Moral Panic

Introduction

In 1960s Britain, the broadcast media were eager to cover violent clashes between two youth subcultures who had very different styles and looks. Mods were defined by their clean-cut suits and scooters. By contrast, rockers dressed in black leather jackets and rode motorcycles.

newspaper article showing riots at the beach
Daily Mirror: 18th May 1964

When sentencing a young man for using threatening behaviour to three months imprisonment, one judge worried the seaside town of Margate was being “polluted by the hordes of hooligans”, calling the unwanted visitors “long-haired, mentally unstable, petty little hoodlums” and comparing them to “rats”. The young man was a “vicious virus”.

The BBC reported that “youngsters” were “indulging in an orgy of hooliganism”. The language used to describe the young people was incredibly aggressive and full of contempt.

Although there were some large brawls, news reports often exaggerated the level of violence and represented the two groups as terrible delinquents who posed a huge threat to law and order. Based on a series of observations and interviews, Stanley Cohen argued the media’s distorted coverage of these events persuaded the audience there was a genuine risk to the country’s safety even though there was no real need to be concerned.

The sociologist called this process a moral panic.

Moral Panic Definition

In “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” (1972), Cohen described how moral entrepreneurs represent certain groups of people as folk devils because they are “a threat to societal values and interests”.

The moral panic is then developed in three stages:

  1. Exaggeration and Distortion – the incident is misrepresented, and some facts are ignored.
  2. Prediction – the news reports suggest the events will inevitably happen again.
  3. Symbolization – words that were once neutral in meaning now have very negative connotations and are used on a symbolic level. In this final stage, the folk devils are reduced to stereotypes striking fear into the law-abiding audience.

The Role of the Media

The justice system and the elective representatives are moral entrepreneurs. However, we are going to focus on the role the media plays in these “moral panic dramas”. Cohen identified three parts:

  1. Setting the agenda – the media selects “deviant or socially problematic events” to investigate and then uses “finer filters” to report the news to the audience.
  2. Transmitting the images – the media repeats the claims and rhetoric of the moral panic.
  3. Breaking the silence – the media make their own claims regarding the deviant behaviour.

In our guide to the agenda-setting function of media, we explored how news organisations are able to influence public opinion by choosing which topics and issues should hit the headlines. The media certainly raised the profile of the initial disturbances between the mods and rockers.

There is also the issue of the way the media represents people and places, or how the news is framed. For instance, the papers splashed stories of the violence on their front pages. Headlines, such as “invasion” and “Battle of Brighton” framed the story in terms of war and positioned the audience to view young people as a genuine threat to society.

If you want to consider the media’s ability to influence the audience, you should explore the various “effects” theories, such as the cultivation theory, especially the concepts of mainstreaming and resonance. The more the media reported stories and images of violence, the more the audience believed the world was mean and young people needed to be punished.

It is also worth reading about Stuart Hall’s reception theory and how television producers encode meaning.

The media's role in a moral panic infographic

Mods and Rockers

In Cohen’s analysis of the conflict between mods and rockers, the media corporations and government institutions are the moral entrepreneurs who exaggerated the disturbances and labelled young people as evil folk devils because they supposedly wanted to corrupt society. These reports resulted in a moral panic and the audience demanding action to be taken to quell the riots.

The loss of important trade was cited as evidence of the “screaming mob” and their “battle”. For example, one newspaper reported that the number of deckchairs hired during one Bank Holiday in Brighton dropped by 8,000 compared to the previous year and 1,500 fewer people used the swimming pool. However, Cohen pointed out that the miniature railway and putting green had both actually increased users in the same time period. The reason for the difference between the figures was straightforward and obvious: it was the coldest Easter in 80 years so fewer people wanted to strip down to the shorts and start swimming. This is the exaggeration and distortion phase of reporting.

Cohen also argued the moral panic made it very difficult to have a rational debate about appropriate solutions. Even though the initial fighting in 1964 only resulted in a few more deckchairs than normal being broken, people assumed the violence would occur again. Of course, the prediction phase exacerbated the problem. The mods and rockers were viewed as a serious threat to public safety so the police began to use excessive force to bring the situation under control. They were also getting paid overtime.

In the symbolization phase of the moral panic, the term mod, which once referred to a particular type of fashion, became a word connoting deviancy and moral degeneracy.

The Social Construction of Deviance

In “Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance” (2009), Goode and Nehuda suggested moral panics are defined by at least five crucial elements:

social construction of deviance infographic

Concern

In this first stage of a moral panic, there is a heightened level of concern towards some sort of deviant behaviour or concept. This concern, or fear, is evident in the increased media attention, such as editorials, exclamatory headlines, trends and the number of shares and retweets. Government might even debate the need for new legislation to combat the perceived attack.

Hostility

The negative reporting of the events increases the level hostility against the group of people in question. (Cohen commented how this was a “moral outrage towards the actors” – the folk devils.) They are consistently categorised as the enemy of society because they are threatening the established order and values. They are stereotyped and defined as the Other.

Consensus

In a moral panic, there must be widespread agreement, or consensus, that the threat posed by the deviant behaviour is substantial and serious. However, as Stuart Hall argued, this public concern could simply be an expression of elite interests “orchestrated” by those in power who want to spark a crisis.

Disproportion

Be careful of fake news and the distortion of facts which exaggerate the size of the problem. Statistics are often twisted to suit the narrative and rent-a-quote experts continue to offer their biased opinions. Put simply, the media’s representation of the deviant behaviour is disproportionate to the actual threat.

Volatility

Moral panics are unpredictable and volatile. They can “erupt fairly suddenly” or “lie dormant” until another scandal hits the headlines. Some moral panics become “routinized” while others “vanish”.

Modern Moral Panics

Although Cohen’s investigation into the media’s response to the mod-rocker riots was part of his Ph.D. thesis, he continued to develop his concepts of folk devils and moral entrepreneurs because they applied to many other moral panics. He suggested the “objects of moral panic belong to seven familiar clusters of social identity”, such as the representation of working-class males, school violence, drug abuse, and asylum seekers.

More recently, the demonisation of immigrants coming to the UK, especially the use of emotive language and imagery, certainly inflated the extent of issue and led to voters opting to leave the European Union. Computer games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series, continue to be blamed for increasing violent tendencies in young people. Mainstream news outlets like to report the dangers of TikTok challenges and how other social media platforms are destroying the very fabric society. Next week, there will be another moral panic to rile and terrify the audience.

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