Moral Panics and Violence in the Media

From the Witch Hunts of the Renaissance to the Happy Slapper, Juggalo or even Pokémon Panics of the early 21st century, the media has long been a central part of the sociological phenomenon known as 'Moral Panic'. It is important to understand this in general terms when dealing with Violence & the Media, as so much of the media coverage of violence takes the form of a clearly defined moral panic, although the panics do not always lead to legislation. What they do lead to is increased sales of questionable texts.

Read about recent examples of moral panic on the Mediaknowall Blog.

According to Key Concepts in Communication (O'Sullivan, Fiske et al 1983)

"Moral panics then, are those processes whereby members of a society and culture become 'morally sensitized' to the challenges and menaces posed to 'their' accepted values and ways of life, by the activities of groups defined as deviant. The process underscores the importance of the mass media in providing, maintaining and 'policing' the available frameworks and definitions of deviance, which structure both public awareness of, and attitudes towards, social problems."

Those deviant groups were labelled by Stanley Cohen in 1972 as folk devils. He based his theory on the media reporting of conflicts between two teenage tribes of the 1960s, the Mods and Rockers, but his thinking can be applied to any subculture labelled as deviant or dangerous by the media.

Moral Panics - 3 stages

Moral Panics in the media can formally be broken down into 3 stages

1.  Occurrence and signification An event occurs and, because of its nature, the media decide it is worthy of dramatic coverage ("Full Colour Pics of Satanic Abuse Site", "Razorblade Found In Babyfood", "Terrorist Cell plot attack" etc) and the event is signified as a violent, worrying one.
2. Wider social implications (fanning the flames) Connections are made between one event and the wider malaise of society as a whole. After the initial event, the life of the story is extended through the contributions of 'expert' opinionmakers, who establish that this one event is just the tip of the iceberg, and that it is part of an overall pattern which constitutes a major social menace ("Child abuse figures on the up" "Safety concerns at babyfood packing plants","Youth Groups targeted by Extremists" etc etc). Thus public attention is focused on the issues
3. Social Control Moral panics seek some sort of resolution and this often comes with a change in the law, designed to further penalise those established as the threatening deviants at the source of the panic ("New clampdown on devil-worshippers". "Strict New Safety Controls on Babyfood", "Hate Groups Banned"). This satisfies the public who feel they are empowered politically by the media.

While some moral panics come and go (satanic abuse doesn't get the headlines it used to...), others seem to be a perpetual source of outraged headlines.


There seems to be a regular supply of abuse and murder cases, usually involving young white females, that generate sensationalist reporting and kneejerk legislation. While the implication is that 'stranger danger' is getting worse, statistics consistently show that random abduction cases are extremely rare. Children are in much more danger from immediate family members, who perpetrate the vast majority of kidnapping and abuse. The UK press seem to be particularly culpable in this area.

Following the murder of Sarah Payne, aged 8, in July 2000, the UK newspaper, the News of the World, launched a vicious (even by UK tabloid standards)'name and shame' campaign against 'paedos', which resulted in several vigilante mobs taking to the streets and terrorising innocent citizens who unfortunately shared a name with, or resembled known sex offenders. At the core of the NoW's campaign were demands to change the law on sex offenders' convictions - most of these demands were eventually met. Politicians realized that each member of the mob screaming outside terrified suspects homes also had a vote.

Two years later, the Soham murders became the focus of 'silly season' headlines. When it transpired that the killer, Ian Huntley, was a school caretaker, outcry ensued, resulting in a new Vetting and Barring Scheme for school employees.

More recently, it's been the turn of 'paedophile priests', with cases from the 1970s and 1980s dredged up (especially if they can be geographically or historically linked to the present Pope) and sensationalized as though they were today's news.

Further Reading