Moral Panic Thesis

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How convincing is the moral panic thesis in explaining media reporting of, and public responses to, youth crime? Moral panic is a concept that examines inconsistent reaction to an event or person. Crimes concerning youths have occurred over the years which have provoked a strong reaction from the public. This essay will mainly focus on how the media reported two events, the Clacton riots in the 1960’s and the murder of toddler James Bulger in the 1990’s and how the public responded to them. It will examine the role of the media, in particular newspapers and will try to determine if moral panic is devised through media reporting. Stanley Cohen was the first Sociologist to use the concept of “moral panic” in the early 1970s to describe political, social or media influence (Jewkes, 2011). Cohen (1972, p. 9) defines moral panic as “A condition, episode, person or group of persons that emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen, 1972). Although it was Jock Young in 1971 who first explored the role of the mass media in labelling non conformists groups and manufacturing crime waves (Jewkes, 2011). As well as moral panic is the theory of a “folk devil”, a name used by Stanley Cohen (1972) to describe a specific body that exists which is often created to understand societal anger. A folk devil ‘is typically identified with the evil doings of an individual or group of people (Ungar: 292).

The folk devil in moral panic theory is seen to represent a threat to society and is viewed as “evil” and why action is required to remove or counteract this threat. The threat over exaggerates the consequence (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1996). However, it is this corresponding reaction that results in real fear. Though the reasons for this anxiety may be untrue or exaggerated, the fear remains (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1996).

Cohen looked at the way in which the mass media moulds events, elaborates the facts and accordingly turn them into a national issue (Cohen, 1972). Cohen's interest was in youth culture and its perceived potential threat to social order. The Mods and Rockers, Skinheads and Hells Angels all became associated with certain types of violence, which provokes a reaction from the public (Cohen, 1972). Cohen's study was primarily about the conflict of the Mods and the Rockers, and the treatment they received in the public eye (Cohen, 2002). In Clacton on Easter Sunday 1964, the two groups fought, with some beach huts being vandalised and windows were broken. Ninety seven people were arrested. The story became a headline in every national newspaper with such titles as "Day of Terror by Scooter Groups" and "Wild Ones Invade Seaside - 97 Arrests" (Cohen, 2002). Cohen looked at the reaction of society, and his main criticism was that the media's coverage of the incident was exaggerated, a distortion of the facts and stereotyping (Cohen, 2002). 'Riot', 'siege', and 'screaming mob' were phases that were included in the main story, creating an impression of a town under attack from which innocent holiday makers fled from a rampaging, unruly mob of youths (Jewkes, 2011). With the exaggeration of the numbers involved, consequently gave the perception the event was to a great extent a more violent affair than the true facts support. The press coverage seemed to follow a stereotypical pattern’ of unruly, out of control youths rather than what actually happened (Cohen, 2002). The general public reacted with hysteria, to the published stories and a media campaign was built, creating moral panic (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Words such as ‘riot’ or ‘youth’ became a symbolic status as deviant and items such as a particular form of clothing or hairstyle signifies that status. Negative emotions become attached to it, disassociating any previous neutral connotations acquiring altogether negative meanings (Jewkes, 2011). Moral panic often occurs when the media take a relatively ordinary event and report...
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