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 it selectively according to ‘news values’, as an extraordinary occurrence. To keep the story alive and to compete with other media sources, exaggeration, distortion, and stereotyping may be reported to keep the public interested. The youths revel in their new reported status as ‘folk devils’ and behave like the unruly youngsters that the media has created and the public now expect of them (Jewkes, 2011). The overblown reporting created unnecessary moral panic within society. The level of fear had been raised and the public call for protection and crackdown on these deviant youths. To heighten public fears, the police and politicians voice their concerns and to appear to be tough on crime and to deal with the problem, they usually seek to introduce new laws to strengthen existing ones and enforce law and order through zero tolerance policies (Jewkes, 2011).
However, moral panic is not a new occurrence and the actions of youths are often been seen as immoral and threatening to the accepted norms and patterns expected within our society (Jewkes, 2011). In producing news for mass consumption, media economists would argue that the media is responding to the pressure of supply and demand by creating sensational accounts of real life incidents to the wishes of the consumer (Schissel, 1997). Nonetheless, the media has epistemological influence and by creating a world of ‘them’ and ‘us’ the media embed stereotypical images of deviants and menaces in our collective psyches that inform us as we form opinions about youths and crime (Schissel, 1997). The panics and the hatred that modern society has formed regarding young people could in some way be the result of constructed, controlled and de-contextualized images of youths (Schissel, 1997). Photographs and headlines are what the reader sees and is likely to remember the most (Schissel, 1997).
This could be the case in 1993 when two 10 year old boys led away two year old James Bulger from a shopping centre in Liverpool, and brutally assaulted him, leaving him unconscious on a railway track (Morrison, 1998). The images of the two young boys leading Jamie away were captured on the CCTV cameras was widely used by the press and this last image of Jamie is an image that is still widely remembered. Reporting restrictions of child offenders in Britain prevented the two boys being named until the trial was over, however this did not stop the media publishing, unsupported wild stories about them and their families (Morrison, 1998). The CCTV images of the abduction, the age of the accused, the angry public and the details of the horrific death, all guaranteed massive news coverage on a land mark case (Morrison, 1998).
The story triggered an immediate unruly moral panic (Cohen, 2002). Public outrage was fuelled by sensational and vindictive press reporting which described the 10 year olds as monsters, animals, the spawn of Satan (Jewkes, 2011), a pair of evil psychopaths (Morrison, 1998). Children are seen to represent the future and engaging in deviant behaviour is often observed as an indication that the youths of society are declining into moral chaos. The media target youths as wrong doers as a source of moral decline to explain the increase levels of crime and unscrupulous behaviour in society (Jewkes, 2011). The message of the Bulger case was that we were living in a violent world, where children were not safe with anyone, not even other children (Morrison, 1998). The story became a symbol for what had gone wrong in society, violent children, absent fathers, dysfunctional underclass families and the exploitation of children by television violence and video nasties (Cohen, 2002), and that access to certain violent films could create child murderers (Furedi, 1997). These concerns were highlighted in the murder of Jamie Bulger.
The case was related to the violent film ‘Child’s Play 3’, which the two 10 year old offenders had apparently previously watched. The case and the implications made against the film resulted in further regulations of videos via the British Board of Film Classification being enacted in 1994. However, there was no supported evidence that suggested a causal link between the film violence and the crime or that the two boys had actually watched the film, only that the film was at one of the boys homes (Morrison, 1998). This illustrates another instance of moral panic, highlighting that they are often based on insubstantial evidence. There is great difficulty in establishing connections between television violence and violent behaviour (Lusted, 1991). The question of television violence reflects the broader concerns of the nature of society.
The fundamental causes of many moral panics have little, or nothing to do with the subject or event with which they focus their concern (Lusted, 1991). The dangers posed by moral panics are continuously exaggerated and distorted by the media with the result that public concern is heightened. They often present reasons and scapegoats for the occurrence of certain events in order to divert attention from more real and greater problems found within society. Such as the 38 adult witnesses who claimed to see two boys kicking and beating a smaller boy but who did not intervene (Morrison, 1998). Children who kill children are rare and go back as far as 1748 when William York, a 10 year old boy who murdered a 5 year old girl (Loach, 2009). The last notorious child-killer before the Bulger 1993 case was Mary Bell, in 1968 (Loach, 2009). Although there are other recorded cases of murder by children the UK, statistics suggest that juvenile crimes such as homicide are a crime that happens comparatively rarely (Morrison, 1998).
The moral panic thesis has been criticised for its inability to determine a link between the extent of disaster and the level of response to it. Failing to accurately determine public levels of concern and as to whether people are motivated by the media to the exclusion of all other influences, makes it impossible to gauge whether the problem is real or not (Jewkes, 2011). Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) believe problems only become the subject of moral panic when they are familiar, and directly impinge on the individual’s lives. Threats such as a shrinking ozone layer maybe a future problem, but is unlikely to become the subject of moral panic (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994). What is the length of time that public outrage has to be expressed to qualify as moral panic? Cohen’s formulation of the concept concludes that moral panics are short term, infrequent episodes which play on the conscious mind, quickly dying out and is forgotten when the story is no longer headline news, or it has more serious and lasting implications, such as changes in policy or legislation for the good of society (Cohen, 1972).
Conversely, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) argue that moral panics are no longer events that happen every now and then, but have become a standard way of reporting news, designed to capture the consumer’s attention (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995). On the other hand, Furedi (1997) argues that we live in a culture of fear. The beliefs that society can be changed for the better have been lost to a sense of vulnerability. Whereas, Carrabine (2008) stresses we are now living in times of high anxiety and the media provide us with daily stories of adversity to constantly remind us that we live in a world of crisis, danger and uncertainty (Carrabine, 2008). Furedi, (1997), McRobbie and Thornton, (1995), Carrabine, (2008), Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) and Cohen’s concept of the moral panic thesis are all valid points.
The public respond to incidents that impose on their lives, once the story is no longer headline news it disappears into the back of the conscious mind to be replaced with another article. However, moral panics does not occur on a daily basis, the general public see the occurrence of youth crime depicted in the media as an increasing and out of control epidemic but this does not necessarily mean moral panic will be created. The media may play an enormous part in the spreading of fear, and provoke anxiety, but they do not necessarily, create these fears in the first place (Lea and Young, 1993). For a media campaign to be built the public needs to react to the problem. The public may be outraged by particular reported issues, but if this does not generate public concern then there is no moral panic (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). O’Connell (2002, p245) states:
“The media do not directly set out to distort public opinion, but by entertaining people with crime, rather than informing the public about it, certain consequences follow… a steady stream of salacious and lurid crime stories sell newspapers but ultimately distort the public understanding of crime as a serious social problem (O’Connell, 2002).
O’Connell puts forward a journalist’s belief that, regarding crime news, in order for a newspaper to be successful, they are unable to reflect the everyday reality about crime, the consumer would basically not be interested (O’Connell, 2002).
The news media shapes the way we think about things that are fear-provoking and unfamiliar to us. Despite the fact youth crime is a statistical rarity, the general population perceives youths as increasingly violent and dangerous. Media efforts to draw attention to certain types of news is based on the hypothesis that if the public fears it, it will read about it (Schissel, 1997).
The threat of youth crime does exist and is a legitimate concern. But the media and politicians exaggerate youth crime to the extent that creates moral panic within society, to the extent that the fear of youths by the public is more of an issue, than the actual crimes itself. Therefore it could be viewed that both the media and political construction is more of a threat to society than the youths themselves. As a result it could be established that the media reporting of youth crime creates moral outrage and fear, generating concerns within the public, which does in turn creates moral panic within society about youth crime.
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O’Mahony, P. (Ed) Criminal Justice in Ireland, Institute of Public Administration, Dublin. pp 245
Ungar, S. (2006) ‘Moral panic versus the risk society: the implications of the changing sites of social anxiety’ in Critcher, C. (Ed) Moral Panics and the Media, Open University Press; Berkshire. pp: 292.
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