Moral Panic Theory

Moral Panic occurs when someone or something is defined by the media as a threat to the values or interests of society.

The key moral panic theorist is Stanley Cohen. Cohen suggested in his 1972 book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ that a moral panic occurs when “condition, episode, person or group of people emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.

Stanley Cohen believes the media play an important role in enforcing moral panic, even by just reporting the news.

In Cohen’s view the media overreact or sensationalise aspects of behaviour which challenge social norms. The media’s representation therefore then helps to define it, which can then lead to outsiders adopting and observing the behaviour based on the model they see in the media. The moral panic depicted by the media fuels further unacceptable behaviour.

In extreme cases moral panic creates mass hysteria within society. The general public start to believe whatever is being reported on is occurring everywhere in society.

Cohen defined his five stages of moral panic as:

1. Something or someone is defined as a threat to values or interests

2. This threat is depicted in an easily recognisable form by the media

3. There is a rapid build-up of public concern

4. There is a response from authorities or opinion makers

5. The panic recedes or results in social changes

The video below explains how Stanley Cohen observed Moral Panic in 1964 witnessing the violence in Clacton and Brighton between rival Mods and Rockers gangs and how the activity was exaggerated  by the media at the time.

Moral Panic theory was explored further by Martin Barker and Julian Petley in their 1997 book ‘Ill Effects: The media/ violence debate’.

In Ill Effects Barker and Petley argued that media violence was a moral panic. The press whipped up hysteria wildly exaggerating the problem making a fantastic connection between real and fictional violence. 



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