Stanley Cohen (1973) suggests that the media depiction of anti-social behaviour helps to construct folk devils. Folk devils become the focus of public fears and anxieties. They are made to stand for wider problems and concerns and, in the process, become the figures who exemplify ‘what is wrong with society today’. Today’s folk devils might be the ‘yobs’, ‘hoodies’, ‘yobettes’ or ‘alco-yobs’ referred to in newspaper headlines. In Cohen’s original study they were the ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’, members of two youth cultures who sometimes fought each other and attacked seaside shops in mid-1960’s Britain.
These mobile young people (mods were associated with motor scooters and rockers with motorbikes) were portrayed as being out of place and out of control, and thus threatening to both social order and the normal expectations of young people’s behaviour. Their apparent affluence, mobility and potential for violence were seen as profoundly disturbing.
Cohen argues that through the portrayal of such folk devils, the media can create a moral panic in society at large. By making folk devils a focus for wider anxieties, the media increase or amplify those anxieties, shaping a mood of public fear and outrage. This fear and outrage then produces demands that ‘something must be done’ (to restore order and punish the disorderly).
A key point about a moral panic is that it is irrational. The fears that it generates are out of proportion to the scale of the actual behaviour that is the original focus for the panic. In part, this is because the panic focuses many fears and anxieties, but it also reflects the dramatisation of the folk devils as alien or evil. Folk devils are typically pictured as ‘mindless’: their behaviour is so different from that of ‘normal’ people that they can only be dealt with by brutal punishment. Unlike ‘normal’ people, they do not have meaningful or comprehensible reasons for their behaviour. This dramatised distinction between ‘normal people’ and...
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