What Do Sociologists Mean By The Term


The term moral panic has been used by many writers to understand crime and its representation. Although popularized by the moral panic studies carried out by Cohen (1972), the term moral panic itself was used in a notable way in an earlier study in 1964 by Marshall McLuhan (Rohloff, Hughes, Petley, & Crichter, 2013). Cohen (1972; 1980) and Pearson (1983) have been credited with popularizing the concept of moral panic in crime studies. Recent literature on moral panic includes work done by Bright (2015), Muncie (2006), and Muncie and Hughes (2002). These works are particularly related to the area of youth crime and moral panics, which is an area that has seen much research in recent times, although moral panic can also be related to crime and race, and crime and religion (Okoronkwo, 2008). For instance, recent literature has shown how media reports may disproportionately report on crime in context of race and religion in the UK, with there being a tendency to report on stories that reflect on crimes committed by the members of the Black and Ethnic Minority groups in the UK (Okoronkwo, 2008). Another interesting work on moral panic relates to what are called as sex crimes, which go on to portray the increase of sexual crimes against women (Lancaster, 2011). Another moral panic that is created with relation to crime in the society is with relation to abduction of children by paedophiles (Lancaster, 2011). This essay analyses the sociological concept of ‘moral panic’ and discusses how moral panic can help in increasing understanding on how the media represents crime.


Moral Panic: How it is described and its relevance to understanding representation of crime in the media

As mentioned above, Cohen (1972) has popularised moral panic studies by emphasising on how moral panic can be created in the societies from time to time. According to this sociological viewpoint on moral panic, a moral panic is created in the society when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests" (Cohen, 1972, p. 9). Thus, Cohen (1972) explains that a moral panic is first created when there is a perception of the emergence of a threat to societal values and interests, which can be due to the existence of some condition, the happening of some episode, or the perception of threat from some person or group of persons (Cohen, 1972). The link between moral panic and media is also explained by Cohen (1972) as the mass media can be responsible for increasing the perception of the threat by presenting it in a stereotypical fashion. Cohen (1972) further argues that moral panic increases when the nature of the threat is magnified by the publicly offered diagnosis and solutions by those who may be considered to be experts in the particular area where the threat is felt. Cohen (1972) argues that for the average layperson, such publicly offered diagnosis and solutions to threats increase the perception of the threat and laypersons not being experts on the issues, tend to believe in the seriousness of the diagnosis as provided by the experts. Cohen (1972) makes the following important statement, which may be relevant to understanding how moral panics impact the society and policy making: “Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in

the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory; at other times, it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself” (Cohen, 1972, p. 9). Cohen (1972) appears to be saying that it is not necessary that the threat should be something novel or new, although it may be so, for there to be a creation of moral panic. Instead, the threat may be new or old, regardless of which, the moral panic may be created because of the appearance of the threat in the limelight. This points at a very close connection between the creation of moral panic and mass media or media reports. Cohen (1972) specifically mentions folk-lore and collective memory, which again has links to media because collective memory can be created through the use of media reports and this collective memory may have long term and serious implications on legal and social policy as well. More importantly, collective memory has implications on how the society conceives itself and it is here that the media reports can have a close link with the creation of moral panic. Does the society conceive itself as one that is threatened by increased levels of terrorism, youth crime, sex crimes? Cohen (1972) has described the four elements that are contained in moral panic. The first element in moral panic is that the object of moral panic is predictable. The second element is that there is a use of discursive formulae to represent the object of moral panic, which leads to predictability or recognizability of the threat. The third element is that the objects of moral panic are damaging in themselves and are also “warning signs” of a deeper and prevalent condition in the society. The fourth element is that the objects of moral panic are transparent and opaque at the same time. This means that although people can see the objects, only the experts can really explain these phenomena to general public (Cohen, 1972). There are five stages in the creation of moral panic by the mass media. In the first stage, a person or a group is defined as a threat to social norms or community interests; then the media uses simple and recognisable symbols or forms to depict this threat; then the public concern is aroused due to the portrayal of this symbol; then, authorities and policy makers respond to this threat with some legal and policy changes; finally, the moral panic leads to social changes within the community as a response (Cohen, 1972).

Moral panics do have an impact on the society because of the concern that they may generate regarding the belief that the perceived deviant behaviour of a particular group will have negative effect on society (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009). Due to this belief, fuelled by news reporting or representation in mass media, the wider society may develop deep hostility towards the group and also cause ‘otherisation’ (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009). The widespread acceptance of the wider society on the existence of a perceived threat from a group or activity is able to feed on the moral panic created by the news media (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009). Two important characteristics of moral panics are that they lead to disproportionate action in law and policy due to the perceived threat from the group or activity; and that moral panics are often volatile and subject to the change in narrative from the news media and social perceptions (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 2009). Thus, moral panics can play a role in how the society would perceive a specific group or activity and what kind of responses will be made to these perceived threats in the legal and social policy. An example of disproportionate responses to moral panics is given by Pearson (2006) who writes that because the media amplifies some aspects of youth crime and ignores the problems and deeper issues that lead to youth crime, government responds to the issue by seeking to place an emphasis on the “unprecedented nature” of the youth crime by basing their precept on news reports, and then formulating policy and legal measures that are not in consonance with the “actual social and historical background” of the issue (Pearson, 2006, p. 7).

Media representation of crime

Media reports are based on the ‘newsworthiness’ of the stories. There are certain stories or certain types of crimes that may be thought to be more newsworthy than the others, thereby receiving disproportionate attention or coverage from the news media. The term ‘newsworthy’ is used to describe or give value to the particular news item in context of how far this news item would be of interest for journalists and potential readership (Greer, 2007, p. 26). An item of news may be said to be newsworthy if it is of such a nature that there is a greater likelihood of it being selected or prioritised by the news media over other news items (Greer, 2007). In terms of crime news, newsworthy crime news is that which is more likely to get coverage by the news media and therefore, more likely to be reported on again and again in the news media. Generally speaking, crime stories that are likely to cause sensation in the readership or viewership, may be described as newsworthy stories. These may be those stories where the violence is of a high or gory character, or where the victim or the perpetrator of the crime has such attributes that are likely to attract more readership or viewership (Greer, 2007). For instance, if the victim of the crime or its perpetrator is a celebrity or a well known personality, there is a greater likelihood of the story being selected or prioritized by the news media over other crime stories that may not involve such known personalities. The basic point is that the readership or viewership is likely to find certain crime stories more interesting than the others. Similarly, viewers or readers may find crime stories involving serial killers or child murderers or sex crimes more interesting because these are signal crimes which have an impact on the wider society, which makes such stories more newsworthy than the others (Greer, 2007). Due to the newsworthiness of certain crimes, there is a possibility that certain crimes will be more reported than the others making for a disproportionate reporting by the news media and in this crime reporting is more influenced by what is newsworthy (i.e. interesting to the readers or viewers) rather than being influenced by the need to portray the crime in the society in a more accurate manner. This leads to creation of moral panics because disproportionate reporting on certain kinds of crimes leads to the perception that these kind of crimes are on the rise in the society and that members of the society are more threatened by these kind of crimes than the others (Grosholz & Kubrin, 2007).

An example of how moral panics can be created through the news reporting on crimes can be taken with respect to youth crimes. The media portrayal of youth offenders, has led to the perception that youth are more likely to commit crimes and that youth crime is on the rise despite the conventional wisdom that youth are less likely to commit crime and are actually more likely to be victimised by adult perpetrators (Grosholz & Kubrin, 2007). However, there has been a tendency be the mainstream news media to treat youth crime as “the stuff of news” due to its newsworthiness, thereby leading to moral panic around youth crime (Grosholz & Kubrin, 2007, p. 59). Recent literature has depicted the creation of moral panic around youth crime and the disparity between the actual state of the youth crime in the society and the perception of the general public on youth crime (Bright, 2015; Muncie, 2006). The mainstream media has portrayed youth crime in a way that is disproportionate, that is, the actual level of youth crime does not match the coverage it receives from the mass media (Bright, 2015). Research emphasises that media reports have led to the issue of youth crime taking on bigger proportions than what is deserved considering the state of the crime in the society (Bright, 2015). Blackman and Wilson (2014) have conducted their research on youth crime in the society and the portrayal of the crime in the news media to show that media reports paint a misleading picture of youth crime as something that is on the rise, whereas actual statistics on youth crime indicate that there is a decrease in youth crime. This finding supports the creation of a moral panic around youth crime, which is not at par with the actual threat that is posed to the society by youth crime (Blackman & Wilson, 2014). It may be noted that mass media remains an important channel for spreading of information widely as it reaches a vast audience (Harris, 2014). The audience can be deeply impacted by the way media reports on crime, while reporting in itself is not always neutral, but is impacted by the opinions, background and perceptions of those who derive meaning from the news and present these meanings to the audience (Harris, 2014). For instance, Okoronkwo (2008) argues that the media is run for its most part by higher socio- economic class of persons, being white, middle class, and middle aged men and that “their views on society may differ from those not part of this demographic” (Okoronkwo, 2008, p. 3). Thus, according to Okoronkwo (2008), crimes by Black and Ethnic Monorities receive more media coverage as those who run the media derive a more threatening meaning from these crimes from a racial perspective.

At times, disproportionate reporting of certain ‘newsworthy’ items may also mean that the item is being continuously reported thus getting fixated in collective memory of the audience and impacting perceptions and opinions of the members of the wider society (Harris, 2014). For example, at the time of London riots in 2011, the continuous media narrative on the event led to generation of an infinite chain of events for the audience leading to fear about riots and youth violence which was not proportionate to the actual events in the London riots (Harris, 2014). The perception of youth violence was perpetuated by the “consistent use of terminology such as 'youth(s)', 'young' and 'children' which emphasised the juvenility of those involved in the unrest” and led to the perception of increased levels of youth crime (Nijjar, 2015, p. 5). Another area where such moral panic is created is with the perception of rising Islamic fundamentalism, which has been attributed to the negative representation of Muslims in the British media after the events of 11 September 2001 and a disproportionate coverage of terror events (Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010).


In conclusion, it may be stated that moral panic and media representation of crime are closely interlinked. Moral panic is created by the media, which may disproportionately report on certain crimes because they are more newsworthy than the others. This may lead to overexposure of certain crimes and creation of recognizable symbols or forms that the wider audience relates to with regard to certain threatening groups or activities. The perception on crime created by the media may be in conflict with the actual state of crime in the society.

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  • Bright, C., 2015. Preventing youth violence and gang involvement: A review of risk and protective factors, s.l.: Early Intervention Foundation.
  • Cohen, S., 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Cohen, S., 1980. Footprints in the Sand: A Further Report on criminology and the sociology of deviance in Britain. In: M. Fitzgerald, G. McLennan & J. Pawson, eds. Crime and Society: Readings in History and Theory. London: Routledge.
  • Goode, E. & Ben-Yehuda, N., 2009. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. 2 ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Greer, C. R., 2007. News media, victims and crime. Thousand Oaks(CA): Sage. Grosholz, J. & Kubrin, C., 2007. Crime in the news: How crimes, offenders and victims are portrayed in the media. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, Volume 14, pp. 59-83. Harris, T., 2014. Anti-social city: Science and crime in late Victorian Britain. In: S. Pickard, ed. Anti-Social Behaviour in Britain: Victorian and Contemporary Perspectives . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillon
  • Jaspal, R. & Cinnirella, M., 2010. Media representations of British Muslims and hybridised threats to identity. Contemporary Islam, 4(3), pp. 289-310. Lancaster, R., 2011. Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press.Muncie, J. & Hughes, G., 2002. Modes of youth governance: Political rationalities, criminalization and resistance. In: J. Munci, G. Hughes & E. McLaughlin, eds. Youth Justice: Critical Readings. London : Sage, pp. 1-18.
  • Muncie, J., 2006. Governing Young People: coherence and contradiction in contemporary youth justice. Critical Social Policy, 26(4), p. 770–793.. Nijjar, J. S., 2015. Menacing Youth’and ‘Broken Families’: A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Reporting of the 2011 English Riots in the Daily Express Using Moral Panic Theory. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), pp. 1-12.
  • Okoronkwo, N. N., 2008. The phenomena of Black youth crime and how Black youths are portrayed in the media in the United Kingdom: Whether the portrayal can be considered exaggerated, or if the moral panic is in someway justified?. Internet Journal of Criminology. Pearson, G., 1983. Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears. London: Macmillon.
  • Pearson, G., 2006. Disturbing continuities: peaky blinders' to 'hoodies'. Volume 65, pp. 6-7. Rohloff, A., Hughes, J., Petley, J. & Crichter, C., 2013. Moral Panics in the Contemporary World: Enduring Controversies and Future Directions. In: J. Petley, C. Critcher, J. Hughes & A. Rohloff, eds. Moral Panics in the Contemporary World . New York: A&C Black.

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