Media and crime

Moral Panics


  • Moral panics are perpetuated by the media through symbolisation, exaggeration and prediction.
  • The media, having played a part in constructing a moral panic may then embark upon a 'moral crusade' against the identified 'folk devils'.
  • The desired outcome of moral crusades is to get the authorities to embark upon a moral clampdown on identified deviants and their behaviour.
  • Cohen believed that moral panics particularly result at times of rapid social change.
  • McRobbie and Thornton argue that moral panics have to be considered in terms of the development of the media and an increasingly sophisticated audience.


Lesley Wilkins' ideas of deviancy amplification were developed by Stan Cohen (1970) through his study of mods and rockers in the 1960s. Through his in-depth study of the conflict between these two youth groups Cohen showed how the media developed a typically exaggerated response and how through the process of deviancy amplification the media (along with the agents of control) encouraged and increased the very behaviour they were condemning.

Cohen describes how on a wet Easter bank holiday weekend in 1964 the national newspapers were short of a main story. When reports of disturbances between mods and rockers at Clacton came through this quickly became front page news with headlines like 'Day of terror by scooter groups' (Daily Telegraph), 'Youngsters beat up town - 97 leather jacket arrests' (Daily Express) 'Wild ones invade seaside - 97 arrests' (Daily Mirror). However, as Cohen points out, seaside disturbances had been taking place since the 1950s. Despite the sensational headlines, the actual events in Clacton amounted to only a beach hut being burnt down, some broken windows, and a bit of fighting. Mostly the weekend involved bored and damp teenagers just riding around the town. Cohen investigated the reporting and found widespread misrepresentation of the facts. Whereas the media reported respectable people intimidated by fighting youths, the beaches were deserted primarily because of the bad weather.

Through the processes of 'symbolisation', 'exaggeration' and 'prediction', Cohen explains how media reporting actually encouraged a spiralling of subsequent deviant behaviour. Extra policing was drafted into the next bank holiday on the expectation that there would be violence. Cohen's point is that by predicting the violence the media helped create it, thus generating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cohen believed that moral panics result at times of rapid social change, which are potentially unstable resulting in people looking for scapegoats upon which to blame their insecurity on. He identified how moral entrepreneurs (people who make a stand about the nation's morals, such as church leaders, politicians, etc.) use the media to feed on this insecurity by encouraging moral panics to spiral.

The media, having played a part in constructing a moral panic, may then embark upon a 'moral crusade' against the identified 'folk devils'. A recent example of this was the News of the World's campaign against paedophiles or the ongoing Daily Mail campaign against 'asylum seekers'. Miller and Reilly (1994) have argued there may be an ideological dimension to moral panics. They argue that moral panics can be used to soften up public opinion and thus act as a form of 'ideological social control'. For example, the media's coverage of Islamic terrorism (which many would describe as 'Islamophobic') has resulted in Government anti-terrorism receiving broad public support despite seriously reducing ordinary people's civil liberties.

Angela McRobbie (1994) argues that the concept of moral panic has become so common that media now use it in a conscious and reflective way. Working with Sarah Thornton (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995) she argues that moral panics were once an unintended outcome of the media but now they can be manipulated both by some groups or even the media itself. In addition, we now have an increasingly sophisticated audience, so media content about crime and deviance can be constructed in the light of this through the presentation of messages, stories and assumed outcomes. The media when it wants to generate a moral panic will generally rely upon audience prejudice and construct scares involving familiar demonised groups such as immigrants, welfare scroungers, sink estate residents, etc. In the light of this, McRobbie and Thornton argue that Cohen's work on moral panics is outdated and suggest that a more postmodernist approach is now needed.


  • 1. Why does Cohen see moral panics as linked to social change?
  • 2. Why do McRobbie and Thornton feel Cohen's work on moral panics is outdated?


  1. Folk devil: A term Stan Cohen used to refer to deviant groups at the centre of moral panics.
  2. Moral panic: media generated public concern over a group ('folk devils') or behaviour that is viewed as threatening to social order.
Last modified: Saturday, 6 October 2012, 5:56 PM