The term moral panic is a popular expression yet it has been widely misused. Moral panic1 is where society has yet to accept the changes in life by groups which has been classified as deviants. 2 Goode and Ben-Yehuda’s definition of moral panic is characterised by a feeling held by a substantial number of a members of a given society, that evil-doers pose a threat to society and to the moral order as a consequence of their behaviour and, thus, “something should be done about them and their behaviour”. 3
Stanley Cohen however defines moral panic as an episode in which a person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests by the media in a stereotypical way. 4 He used the term “moral panic” to characterise the reactions of the media, the public and agents of control5, to youth disturbances as there always have been an overreaction by these groups which are in fact somewhat trivial, both in terms of the nature of the offence and the amount of people involved. 6
However, the question is focused on the relationship between media and crime in relation to moral panic. The mass media7 have come to play a fundamental role in modern society yet it has thoroughly influenced society by way of stereotyping “groups”8 as scapegoats are needed for sensational headlines. Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (1950, 1951) argued that the media influence society more in terms of how they communicate than what they communicate as the “medium is the message” which influences people’s behaviour and attitudes. 9
Cohen believes that there are three different aspects of media reporting which he thought was necessary to the fuelling of moral panic: exaggeration and distortion, prediction and symbolisation. 10 Following the exaggeration and distortion of reports by the media, the media has a way of exaggerating the seriousness of events by way of using misleading pictures and catchy headlines. Hence, producing the over estimation of numbers involved and the use of emotive language, that Cohen believes illustrates the fact that the information contained within them may not be completely truthful.
If the report was in good faith, the repetition of false stories usually overrides it thus, losing its factual basis. 11 Prediction, another element which contributes towards moral panics is used, as the media has always been able to anticipate the confrontations before they happened, thus, predicting trouble. 12 The media is responsible for manufacturing a self-fulfilling prophecy13 by reporting incidents before they happened and then contributing to the event when it finally took place.
The last element, symbolisation14 is when a word becomes a symbol, a certain status which have been highlighted and built up around certain labels. These labels are used to grab the reader’s attention. Cohen suggested that society is often subjected to instances and periods of moral panic as it can either occur as novel events or events which have been in existence within the society for a long period of time and have suddenly become an issue of importance and concern. A recent example of a moral panic which has been considered as a novel event would be concerning the case of ‘child killers’.
The James Bulger15 case in the 1990’s involved two 11 year old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables who abducted Bulger from a shopping precinct in Liverpool. They walked him two miles through crowded streets to a railway line, where they inflicted massive injuries resulting in his death. This case was related to the violent film “Child’s Play 3”, which the offenders had previously watched. 16 It is clear that this deviant act committed by fellow children dominated newspaper headlines and created a panic and outrage.
The murder was portrayed by the media as a horrific act, which symbolised the degeneration of modern British society, despite the statistically murders were extremely rare in the UK. However, children have in the past killed other children, yet the death of James Bulger has been widely publicised by the media and in turn, moral panic is provoked to gain media attention as Frank Furedi17 points out. 18 The James Bulger case can be contrasted with the case of Mary Bell who at age 11 murdered two toddlers in 1968, there was no moral panic and seemed to be largely ignored by the press.
The media used the Bulger case as an excuse to symbolise all that was wrong with Britain, they focused on the difference between innocence and evil and why we as a society had allowed it to happen, it suggested the increase of public indifference, lowering family values and increasing isolation, generating massive public guilt and predicting a breakdown in the cohesive fabric of society itself. The most recent case of moral panic would be of that of the Japan schoolgirl who killed her classmate.