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It is impossible to avoid those racy headlines or steamy news in the newspapers or television about a person or group of persons or a certain condition or situation that is a threat to societal values. The mass media has always played an important role in shaping the society and its views. The term “moral panic" was coined by Stanley Cohen in 1971 to illustrate responses of the public and media to the disturbances in the society. According to Cohen, those elements that deviated away from the core values of law abiding society posed a threat to the very foundations of the society itself. He gave the term "folk devil" for those elements (Killingbeck 2001). The media has a significant role to play here. It is the total effect produced by the public opinion, interaction of the media and the reactions of the authorities that gives rise to a moral panic. According to Cohen, the media creates a moral panic based on a condition or activities of a person or group that are a threat to the prevailing social order. A specific problem behind moral panics may symbolize another issue. Moral panic Moral panic is a well-established term today and commonly used in everyday vocabulary to refer to all kinds of criminal behaviors. The exaggerated reaction from the wider society to the activities of particular social groups has often been sensationalized in media. The antisocial groups are views as the folk devils. According to Cohen, the societies undergo periods of moral panic now and then in response to a group or activity that is defined as a threat to its values and interest. The moral barricades of the society are manned by editors and politicians along with other right-thinking people (Marsh and Melville 2011, p. 2). The panic may pass over quickly or remain logged in the society with serious and long-lasting repercussions. Some panics lasts forever while others are forgotten. For example, 9/11 attacks on America still make news, and the date is not forgotten by the world. On the other hand, various forms of youth culture seen as deviant behavior are soon forgotten. During moral panics, public fears rise over a focused social problem played upon by the media, which plays an instrumental role in constructing that problem. Negative social reactions to deviant behaviors command their significance. To understand social deviance completely, one has to look at not just the cause behind but also what leads to the society’s responses (Krinsky 2013, p.2). A comprehensive analysis of several moral waves of panic by some scholars contrasts with Cohen’s model of social and cultural development. Certain attributes of moral panics comprise of concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility. To begin with, there must be a significant level of anxiety in the society as a response to a social menace. The source of the problem should be looked upon with enmity and a group identified who is responsible for the danger posed to society. The substantial agreement must occur within the public and should be powerful enough (Krinsky 2013, p.7). The intensity of public concern must be out of proportion and reach a high demonstrable level. Moral panics often rise and disperse fast, and often leave behind elements of social changes.
The term ‘moral panic’ depicts a complex society that may experience a sudden fear. The moral perspectives and articulations of different segments of society have changed over the years (Krinsky 2013, p.9). Earlier, the media and moral crusaders imposed the social control on folk devils. However, the social relations between the moral crusaders and folk devils plus the media have become more variable. The media has long operated as agents of moral indignation unconsciously, and it is how they present the news that can lead to concern, anxiety and panic. Cohen’s work is more about moral panics and the social reaction and offers a little explanation on deviant behaviors itself. When studying media, it is evident that media can play on the public concerns and can create social problems dramatically that can further lead to deviance amplification (Marsh and Melville 2011, p. 4). The public image of folk devils relies a lot on how and how often the folk devils make their appearance in the media. Cohen emphasizes the importance of the transmission and diffusion of the reaction in the mass media that explains moral panics.
The media and its role over time The entertainment medium is introduced as files somewhere in the 19th century. The films impacted the social behavior, political views, and public’s values and thus became the first mass medium to create a homogenous group people. The entry of Television in the 1950s lead to an enormous public acceptance and further influenced the norms, values, and social behavior (Killingbeck 2001). Today, television has become a significant social factor that conveys thematic messages about crime. The news media puts forth images and messages very much like the entertainment media. The similarities between entertainment media and news media only lead to the distortions of reality conveyed.
Crime news often takes a significant portion of the entire news and prepackaged in away so as to create hype. The violent crime is seen to be more saleable as it occurs less frequently and the disproportionate focus only creates a moral panic. Moral panics is typically media driven, and the contributors to this volume include newspaper reports, television, films, photographs, political speeches, videogames, protest signs, government documents and more (Krinsky 2013, p.13). The entertainment media itself doesn’t claim about the accurate portrayal of crime. Still, the society’s ability to discriminate fact and fiction are often blurred. This leads to false perceptions of crime, the criminals, and fear. The repeatedly misleading messages about criminals by the media portray them to be violent, insane and irrational. Criminality is viewed as an individual and conscious choice made by an individual while ignoring other aspects (Killingbeck 2001).
Taking the case study of paedophilia and information gathered from the newspaper coverage, it is apparent how panic has developed over the issue. The term ‘paedophilia’ came into use somewhere in the 1990s (Marsh and Melville 2011, p. 13) and before that it was referred to child pornography. However, with time, the term was associated with abduction and murder of children by strangers. The panic around this crime led to an extensive media coverage of sexual offences against children in the UK. There was public outrage against the sex offenders and demand for reforms of the judicial system. The moral panic over the paedophiles rose to a high level with child abusers making major headlines in media and newspapers. British press saw coverage of paedophilia reaching unprecedented levels. Major newspapers promoted the moral panic over paedophiles. The images of thousands of paedophiles preying on young children conjured in the mind of public and news related to them continued to grab front page space. As a result, an atmosphere developed because of the panic composed by the British press that led to brutal attacks on those suspected as paedophiles and prolonged rioting. Innocent families were forced to leave and some people were wrongly labelled as sex offenders.
There is no denying that sex abuse is a serious matter but it does not give the media the authority to whip up a moral panic over it. Studies have revealed a number of inaccuracies with the media reports. Moreover, the publication of the personal details of convicted sex offenders in largest-selling British tabloid paper only added to the issues ((Marsh and Melville 2011, p. 15). Such publicity can tar the innocent, identify innocent relatives of offenders and encourage violence.
The prolonged nature of the moral panic can be applied to paedophilia as there are perceptible ‘folk devils’ in paedophiles and strong reactions invoked among the public. However, the image of a paedophile built by the media does not present an accurate picture and parents get worried about those strangers. On the other hand, it is true that numbers of children abducted and killed have remained constant in Britain for many years. Moreover, there is a minuscule percentage that falls in the category of dangerous pedophiles.
The deviance from the reality This is a good example as to how moral panics can influence our understanding of pedophilia. Today, along with pedophilia, the media talks about internet pedophilia that gets extensively reported and panicked about. The churches, child welfare organization and Internet watch have emerged as moral entrepreneurs as spokespeople against the new threat. The publicity in the press leads to public anxiety, and that portrays a widespread moral panic over the signs of social disintegration. However, there are several other factors that have a role to play in the complex societies of today. The sociological study of deviance led to the development of the amplification of deviance by Cohen. According to him, media often plaid against the deviant behavior and this only aggravated the problem’. The society labels certain deviant groups and rule-breakers who are seen as socially deviant. The older tradition for the sociology of deviance worked on standard and unquestionable concepts. The new tradition is seen to ask questions as to deviant from what and to whom. The social problem asks as to how it is a problem and to whom. The deviance is created by the society itself who makes certain rules (Cohen 2002, p. 5). In several societies, crime rates have continued to decrease, but the news about them have been on a steady rise. The media crime wave tends to build of public concern and increase fear. Incidents of school violence are often seen to be exaggerated and the public develops a vision of armed and violent students. Still, the crime among youth is on the decline. The stories of youth violence put forth by the news media present a distorted image of the reality. The society has strong opinions against those who take drugs but not those who smoke tobacco. Thus, it is not the drug taker whose action are questionable, but also the society who condemns drug taking but not tobacco. The investigations of deviant and condoned behaviors and divergent social reactions by researchers have led to the definition of moral panic (Krinsky 2013, p.3).
There are strong emotional responses and reactions among the public, media and politicians about the extent of certain behaviors such as hoodies, drug abuse, pedophilia and other social issues. What excites media and public opinion is sexual offending within the family. It is seen that the numbers of children abducted and killed in Britain have remained the same for many years. This is a good example of how moral panics distorts the capacity of the society to understand the true nature of the problem. Popular fears are based on panic around Internet pedophilia. Those moral panics have led to child welfare organizations and Internet watch with more traditional moral institutions such as churches against the new threat to the society (Marsh and Melville 2011, p. 18).
Conclusion There is a long history of moral panics and the harmful effects of popular media and cultural forms. According to the conservatives, the media continues to glamorize crime and thus undermine moral authority. How the media constructs crime shapes public opinion and leads to fear and moral panic. The results of the panic are apparent in the misdirected policies and behaviors of authorities. The media must shoulder a responsibility on how it presents the news and its impact on the public's understanding of crime. The term of moral panic is only getting broader, and the idea of a moral panic is often seen to be exaggerated by the media with a deliberate intention to spin social problems for more attention. The media is not a single body but made of a large number of gatekeepers, who control the source of information and making of the news. However, the same news can evoke different reactions from the public, the moral entrepreneurs and the folk devils themselves to the same message from the media. The media constructions of paedophilia in modern society impacts the public opinion and shape individual attitudes. Paedophilia has become a socially sensitive and traumatic topic, especially after how it has been reported and discussed in the media.
Cohen, S. 2002, Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and Rockers, 3rd edn, Routledge, New York;London;.
Krinsky, C. 2013, The Ashgate research companion to moral panics, Newition edn, Ashgate Pub, Burlington, VT;Farnham, Surrey; vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-14.
Killingbeck, D. (2001). The Role Of Television News In The Construction Of School Violence As A "Moral Panic". Available: http://www.albany.edu/scj/jcjpc/vol8is3/killingbeck.html [Accessed: 3 Jan 2016].
Marsh I. and Melville G. 2011, "Moral Panics And The British Media – A Look At Some Contemporary ‘Folk Devils’”, Internet Journal of Criminology, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-21.