Moral Panics

The media may cause crime and deviance by creating a moral panic. The media identify a group as a folk devil or a threat to societies values. The media negatively stereotype the group and exaggerate the problem. Moral entrepreneurs (editors, politicians) condemn the behaviour of the group, leading calls for a ‘crackdown’. In turn, this may cause a SFP, amplifying the very problem that caused the panic in the first place e.g. setting up special drug squads led the police to discover more drug taking. As the crackdown identifies more deviants, calls for even tougher actions creates a deviance amplification spiral.

The mods and rockers

Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics examines how the media’s response to disturbance between two groups of teenagers, the mods and the rockers created a moral panic. The media overreacted these events by exaggeration and distortion – the media exaggerated the numbers and seriousness, distorting the picture through sensational headlines, prediction- the media predicted further conflict and violence and symbolisation- the symbols of the mods and rockers (clothes, bikes and scooters) were negatively labelled.

The deviance amplification spiral

The media’s portrayal of events produced a deviance amplification spiral in two ways:

  • By making it appear the problem was getting out of hand. This led to calls for an increased control response from the police and courts. This produced further stigmatisation of the mods and rockers as deviants
  • By defining the two groups and emphasising their supposed differences. This led to more youths adopting these identities and drew in more participants for future clashes. This encouraged polarisation and created a SFP as youths acted out the roles the media has assigned to them. However, Cohen doesn’t explain why the media are able to simplify some problems into a panic, but not others, nor why panics come to an end rather than continuing to amplify.

Cohen notes that the medias definition of the situation is crucial in creating a moral panic, because in large scale modern societies, most people have no personal experience of the events and must rely on the media for information. He also argues moral panics are a result of a boundary crisis, where there is uncertainty about where the boundary lies in between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in a time of change.

Perspectives on moral panics

  • Functionalist see moral panics as a way of responding to the sense of anomie created by change. By dramatising the threat to society in the form of a folk devil, the media raise the collective consciousness and reassert social controls when central values are threatened.
  • Neo-Marxism have also used to concept of moral panics. Hall et al argues that the moral panic over black muggings served to distract attention away from the crisis of capitalism.