There are many ways in which the media can incite moral panics and produce folk devils and one way in which this is possible is through labelling. Moral entrepreneurs, who dislike some particular behaviour such as drug takings, may use the media to put pressure on the authorities to do something. This is an important element in the process in creating moral panic. This refers to an exaggerated over-reaction by society to a perceived problem- usually fuelled or inspired by the media. The media also help to make the problem bigger and blow it out of proportion. There are many ways in which the media can stimulate this.
In a moral panic, the media identify a group as a folk devil. Folk devil can be identified as a threat to society’s values. The media also present the group in a negative stereotypical fashion and again exaggerate the scale of the problem. Also the ‘respectable’ people of the society such as, bishops, politicians and police chiefs condemn the group and its behaviour. Usually this would lead to a ‘crackdown’ on the threatening groups.
In spite of this, it may result in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that amplifies the very problem that caused the panic in the first place. This could be seen in the instance with cases of drugs. As a result police set up drugs squads and in turn find out more drugs and the crackdown identifies more deviants, which then calls for even tougher action creating a deviance amplification spiral.
The most influential study was by Stanley Cohen, which was featured in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. He examined the role of the media and the media’s response to disturbances between 2 groups of teenagers. The Mods and the Rockers were two groups of largely working class teenagers, at English seaside resorts from 1964-1966, and Cohen examined the way in which this created a moral panic. The mods were distinguished as wearing smart clothes and rode scooters and listened to pop and soul, whilst rockers wore leather jackets and rode motorbikes and listened to rock and roll. Although in the early stages, distinctions were not very clear.
On the Easter weekend 1964 there were a few scuffles and broken windows and some beach huts were destroyed. Although the disorder was minimal, the media over reacted. In Cohen’s analysis, he uses the analogy of a disaster, where the media produce an inventory or stocktaking of what happened. This inventory contained three things. Exaggeration and distortion are one of them. This is where the media exaggerate the numbers involved and the extent of the violence and damage, and distort the picture through the dramatic reporting and sensational headlines. Second, is prediction and this were the media regularly predict and assume further conflict and violence will take place. Lastly, symbolisation, and this is where the mods and rockers symbols such as- their clothes, bikes, scooters and hairstyles- are negatively labelled and associated with deviance.
Cohen goes further and argues that the media’s portrayal of events produces a deviance amplification spiral by making it seem as if the problem was spreading and getting out of hand. This then led to an increased control response from the police and also courts. This then in turn produced further marginalisation and stigmatisation of the Mods and Rockers as deviants and less tolerance.
The media further amplified the deviance by defining the two groups and their sub cultural styles. By emphasising their supposed differences, the media made clear the two distinct identities and transformed loose-knit grouping into two tight knit gangs. This encouraged polarisation and helped create a self- fulfilling prophecy of escalating conflict as youths acted out roles the media had assigned them.
Cohen also observed that the medias definition of the situation are crucial in creating a moral panic, because in large-scale modern societies, most people have no direct experience of the events themselves and therefore have to rely on the media for information about them. In the case of the Mods and Rockers, this allowed the media to portray them as folk devil.
However it could be said that the notion described by Cohen are outdated. Fashion and music have become more diverse, and young people rarely identify themselves with one particular style. Subsequently, society has become more complex, fragmented and liberal and it’s less clear what constitutes deviant behaviour. Thirdly, politicians are cautious when trying to create a moral panic over, for example, teenage mums, in case they are seen as old-fashioned bullies. McRobbie and Thornton argue that society and the media have moved on and new concepts and ideas. They also point out that early versions of the moral panic model saw society as one influenced by postmodernism, would take a more differentiated approach.
It has been widely accepted that this is the age of moral panics. From the Bulger case to mad cow disease, newspaper headlines continually warn of some new danger and television programmes echo the theme with sensational documentaries. Although today’s media audiences are accustomed to ‘shock’ stories. So it could be said that they do not react to manic to media exaggerations. Finally it has been said that the media create moral panic to preserve ruling class hegemony. This was seen in the 1970s mugging, which were sensationalised by the elite to divert the attention from the crisis of the Britain capitalism.
In conclusion many of the dramatized stories illustrate many aspects of moral panic and highlight the way such issues are portrayed and orchestrated by the media. As it is the case with many moral panics become ‘deviants’ such as the Mods and Rockers, and are deemed threatening to our society as a result of the media’s reporting of their views and actions.
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