Goode and Ben-Yehuda explain the indicators; Concern develops a heightened level over the imagined threat and those associated with it. It may be measured by methods such as opinion polls, media attention or proposed legislation. Hostility follows concern, which increases and intensifies towards those central to the threat. From this, a consensus is formed among society that the threat exists and is serious. Disproportionality occurs because the degree of public concern over the behaviour, problem or condition is far greater than is factually true. Goode and Ben-Yehuda state that this is an important element in determining a moral panic.
It decides upon whether a moral panic is occurring or alternatively it is more simply an episode of public concern. This disproportionality element is exacerbated by information such as number of victims or deaths, which are often greatly exaggerated (Sands, 1998, p. 3). The fifth element is one of volatility; it erupts suddenly and almost as quickly subsides or disappears (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994. p. 33-40). However, it may be stated that lasting impacts are often formed, such as in change to legislation or policy. It could be said that for decades, drugs have caused various moral panics.
These may be argued to include the amphetamine drug use of the sixties and seventies, alarm over glue sniffing in the eighties and through the nineties via panic over designer drugs. Take the example of one such case; that of Ecstasy use. Saunders (1996) writes on the subject, that following the death of eighteen-year-old Leah Betts in November 1995 from Ecstasy, a moral panic ensued. The parents cooperated with the media to produce powerful emotive anti Ecstasy images of their unconscious daughter, with the aim of getting the message across that Ecstasy is highly dangerous and can kill.
This was followed up by billboards showing Leah in intensive care with the caption, ‘Sorted. Just one Ecstasy tablet killed Leah Betts’. However, the risk of death has been calculated at one in six million – a considerably smaller risk of dying from a normal dose of aspirin (Wood, 1997). Saunders mentions that the media, having thrown the problem into disproportionality, then took a pious tone. Overheating being the main danger of taking Ecstasy, they provided harm prevention advice, which concentrated on drinking plenty of water.
However, Saunders states that what was not mentioned, was that water could be harmful if more is drunk than can be removed by sweating or urinating. The blood, diluted, causes tissue cells to swell. The brain cannot swell inside the skull and it was this pressure, which caused Leah’s death. This accurate cause of death was not given for two weeks and then only at the bottom of page 5 of The Times. The media preferred to keep the message simple: Leah died from taking a single tab of Ecstasy. To say she died from drinking water is not a good story (Saunders, 1996).
It may be stated that therefore, the media not only created a moral panic over the issue by reporting the ecstasy culture as worse than it actually was, it exacerbated the possible incidences further by providing advice which was not factually correct. It could be argued that the media were also instrumental in the moral panic over ‘video nasties’ in the early 1990’s. The incident in question concerned the trial of two 10-year-old schoolboys, who abducted and killed young 2-year-old James Bulger, in Liverpool in 1993. The website, Childs Play 3 (n.d. ) notes that the judge at the trial made a remark after passing sentence, saying, “Whilst there has been no actual evidence of this, I suspect that exposure to violent movies had something to do with your actions”. Eager to cash in on the publics shock and disgust, the press had a field day. Articles were published about horror films, in particular the film ‘Child’s Play 3’, claiming that the stepfather of one of the two boys had rented it prior to the murder. However, it was revealed soon after that neither child had actually seen the film.
Nevertheless, the scare mongering press did not stop there. Stories continued to be published about the film of how ‘sick’ and ‘evil’ it was, going to great lengths to try and draw parallels between some of the killings in the film and how Jamie was murdered, of which there where none! (Childs Play 3. n. d. ). Sands (1998) states that a national panic was created and the drama heightened by the Sun Newspaper, who organised a ‘Burn your video nasty, for the sake of our children’ campaign, calling on people to destroy their horror videos.
Stricter controls were called for, which resulted in a change in the 1984 ‘Video Recordings Act’, requiring stricter censorship for home video use. (Childs Play 3. n. d. ). It could be stated that legislation has also been affected by the continuing moral panic over paedophiles. After the abduction and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne by a previously convicted paedophile, parallels may be observed from the James Bulger case, of the media uproar that occurred.