Moral Decline and Moral Panic


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Moral panic suggests an overreaction to forms of deviance or wrongdoing believed to be threat to the moral order.” Moral panic often unfolds around youth-related problems, sex offenders in the society and terrorism. Moral panic has been applied to not only criminal activities but also several social problems which include child abuse, AIDS, rave dances and drug use. This essay is going to evaluate the concept of moral panic and its critiques alongside the development of its application within criminology.

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Moral panic, in its simplest definition, is a fear that someone or a group of individuals is a menace to the values of the society. This is bolstered by the mass media which as a result leads to the implementation of new policies in order to diminish that panic. These new policies, in a way, promotes social control. Moral panic is usually linked to stereotypes, that is individuals who are alienated in the community because of their ethnicity, sexual preferences, nationality or religious beliefs. This intensifies the obvious differences and creates a further division among the people in the society.

The concept of moral panic was developed by the criminologist Stanley Cohan when he addressed the reactions of the public to the brawl involving youth at the beach in the 1960s. His focus was on how the public reactions impacted the implementation of new social policy in order to deal with the youths. Cohen stated that moral panic has three distinguishing attributes. Firstly, there is a group of people who, Cohen refers to as “folk devils”, the media will do its best to show the negative characteristics of that targeted group to the public in order to show that they are a threat to the society. Secondly the disproportionality which infers to the disproportionate reaction to a specific deviance and this disproportionality is measures by assessing the issue and the intensity of the reaction. The media try to demonstrate that the threat is far more alarming than it actually is. Lastly, there is a drastic shift in the level of concern over time which involves initially the recognition of the threat which over time reaches its peak in public concern and it eventually diminishes. Cohen believed that the media plays a significant role in creating moral panic to which I agree. He believed that the media sensationalizes and presents a distorted view of the incidents that happened. The media has a great influence on the public opinion. The public usually believe what they have seen and heard in the media. They form their opinion based on what the media convey to them. The mass media often exaggerate and distorts the facts of who did or said what and unfortunately the public readily believe them. It is held that the media glamourize crime and violence and it in a way encourages criminality.

There have been several criticisms regarding the Cohen’s concept of moral panic. It is regarded as being flawed in several ways. It is criticized for not taking the crime seriously. Young criticized Cohen’s theory on moral panic claiming that it actually side-lines the crime and only focusses on the reaction of the public to the crime in the society rather than the crime itself. “Realism emerged as a critique of a predominant tendency in left-wing and liberal commentaries which downplayed the problem of crime, talking about media instigated moral panic and irrational fears of crime.” According to Young, the moral panic concept revolves around the public reaction to the crime and how the criminal justice respond to it rather than focussing on the real issue of crime. Cottee has also criticized Cohen’s theory to be ‘indefensible’. “It should be pointed out that crime is very much the focus of moral panic.” Waddington also criticizes the moral panic concept and refers to it as a polemic concept. He describes this concept as being less useful because of its loose terminology. The concept of moral panic has been criticized for its similarities to the Durkheim’s understanding of collective conscience and deviance. Other criticism includes Jewkes who argues that Cohen’s concept of moral panic does not account for all the different level of deviancy that exist.

Cohen assumed that the society as a whole would have the same response to a particular moral panic but in reality, that is not the case as people in today’s world would have different reactions to a moral panic and this was supported and further analyzed by McRobbie and Thornton in their 1995 paper. Cohen’s concept has successfully been able demonstrate how certain powerful groups in the community have the power to create new legislation which would be otherwise rejected under normal circumstances. As aforementioned, the mass media plays a very significant role in creating moral panic. They report crime which is blown out of proportion while presenting it to the public in order to gain more viewership. Crime statistics authorities suggest that there is a decline in crime but the media reports otherwise thus creating a social panic among the people. The media plays a big role in public perceptions on crime and in a way, it is spreading the message that the world is a dangerous place to live whereas in reality that is not the case.

There has been an obvious evolution of the moral panic theory within criminology. The moral panic theory does not exist in a vacuum. In 1978, based in the University of Birmingham, Hall applied the moral panic theory to the mugging incident. Hall’s work on the Policing the Crisis was one of the significant contributions in criminology. In 1983, Pearson described the moral panic theory as “every age has its hooligan – ‘moral dodoism’ means a seamless tapestry of fears about the ‘deteriorated present’ and a constant search for an unfound ‘golden age’.” In 1994, Goode & Ben-Yehuda outlined the five significant components to a moral panic which involves concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility.

One of the notable examples of the moral panic caused by the media is the Salem Witch Trial where women who were social outcast were accused of witchcraft. The media presented these women as being threat to the young girls of the society. This has led to a reinforcement of the religious leaders as witchcraft was deemed to be a menace to Christianity values. Another example that created moral panic is when the media sensationalize the drug use among the Black underclass group in the urban areas. The media linked drug use to vandalism and crime which created huge public concern and resulted in high policing of those urban areas. The 9/11 terror attack is another example which has in a way created this fear towards this specific group of people who are the Muslims. The media has sensationalized this incident in such a way that even till now terrorism is directly link to Muslims. It has in a way created Islamophobia which has created this fear of Muslims among people. Moral panic targets are not chosen at random but instead they are cultural scapegoats whose deviant behavior relate to one’s fear.

To conclude, it can be said that as long as crime would exist in society, moral panic will continue to exist and therefore if the media continue to exist and give information on crime to the public, the fear of crime will continue to exist in our society. The media tends to overestimate crime and exaggerate certain incidents such as fabricating the extent of violence and level of damage caused which in a way results in, authorities passing highly punitive laws which are often unnecessary but because of the media attention and public concern at that given time it had to be put in place in order to tackle the threat being highlighted.        

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