Media and strong reaction

Describe what is meant by the term ‘moral panic’, using your own words as far as possible. Cite at least one example of a ‘moral panic’. The term moral panic is a concept introduced by the social sciences to help understand certain problems that arise in society from time to time. Periodically society is faced with a problem that threatens the moral standards of the day. Geoffrey Pearson in his book Hooligan came up with the idea that the older generation of every period look back on their younger days as a time of morality, comparing it with the immorality of the present day youth. The institutions responsible for law and order in whichever time period the narrative is referring to are unable to contain the crime problem. The notion of a moral panic attempts to understand such claims.

Stanley Cohen used the notion of moral panic whilst examining the disturbances between the mods and the rockers’ in Clacton in 1964. In his view the media reaction was excessive, generating widespread public concern and causing the authorities to react stronger in later incidents and ultimately fuelling the original problem. The initial clashes between mods and rockers’ in 1964 were relatively small. The press arrived the following day and proceeded to interview participants and members of the public.

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As seen in TV07, interviewees who were there in 1964 described the press as exaggerating the scenario. There was also evidence of the press attempting to fuel the situation by inviting people to participate in a fight elsewhere. In one news clip from 1964 the press asked a young man involved in the clashes in Clacton where he thought the next clashes would be. The young man informed them that they would probably be in Brighton on Whit Sunday. Come the Whit Sunday the press were ready and waiting in Brighton and the clashes were much more serious than the previous. The press also caused the public to perceive the latest developments as an escalating problem.

The continual and excessive reporting by the media and strong reaction by the police served to attract more youths into the equation and fuel further clashes. The press also reported on the identities of the mods and the rockers’ highlighting such differences as dress codes between the two groups of youths. The press therefore helped to distinguish differences between two distinct youth sub-cultures.

The late 1980’s saw the emergence of a new youth sub-culture and indeed a moral panic. The arrival of acid house music and rave was widely reported. The media by this time had taken hold of the concept of a moral panic and were using the term to help promote and spread this latest development in youth sub-culture. The incidence of raves became scandalised by the reporting of drug taking at these events, however the negative press only served as an encouragement to many youngsters. The government tried to take action by the introduction of new powers for the police by way of the ‘Criminal Justice Act 1994’. This led to more media hype and attention by the public and also clashes between the police and protesters. In the meantime the rave events not only continued but also began to become less of a subculture and more mainstream.

In 1995 the death of Leah Betts at her 18th birthday party seemed to trigger the start of a typical moral panic. The press enthusiastically reported the incident of a young girl dying from taking an ecstasy tablet supplied to her at her birthday party. But as the details of the case emerged and it became apparent that Leah was partly to blame for her own death and that this young lady was typical of many youngsters throughout the country, it became increasingly difficult for the press to simplify and stigmatise the cause of the problem.

The key stages of a moral panic are the identification of the problem or cause. Followed by the generalization of that cause or singling out of the main offender(s) by the press. Then comes the attempt to stigmatise the simplified cause by way of selective reporting and widespread media attention. The media attention then triggers a public reaction with calls for action from the authorities, the press again being used as the medium. The authorities then respond with tougher action and tighter forms of control often initiating more media interest and further public concern, as the initial problem appears to grow.

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