What do interactionists say about crime?

Labelling Theory and the Media: Moral Panics


  • Cohen's classic study of mods and rockers illustrates the process of media generated moral panics and the creation of folk devils.
  • Media reporting actually made the problem worse and increased the likelihood of it occurring again.
  • The media can demonise groups using them as scapegoats and as a form of ideological social control that justifies the increase of power to the state.
  • Through the construction of images of deviants the media can misinform and promote ignorance.


The interactionist Stan Cohen (1970) developed the concept of a moral panic which is a classic example of social reaction and labelling. Cohen developed Leslie Wilkins' ideas of deviancy amplification through his study of 'mods and 'rockers' in the 1960s where he showed how the media developed a typically exaggerated response to these youth gangs in the 1960s. Cohen describes how on a wet bank holiday weekend during Easter 1964 the national media was short of a main story. When reports of disturbances at Clacton were heard this became front page news ('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 and 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. 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. Effectively by predicting the violence the media helped create it and the following bank holiday was marred by violence at Margate. 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'. For example, the tabloid newspapers can negatively target and demonise groups such as gypsies and asylum-seekers by implying they are engaged in illegal behaviour without necessarily producing any evidence. Such groups are generally viewed as 'not one of us' or 'other'-groups. The desired outcome is for the authorities to embark upon a moral clampdown on identified deviants and their behaviour. There may be an ideological dimension to moral panics through the role of interest groups and elites. Miller and Reilly (1994) argue that moral panics can be used to change 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 policies receiving broad public support despite seriously reducing ordinary people's civil liberties.

Finally through the media's coverage of moral panics this can construct images of deviants and criminals that are misleading and false. For example, the media tends to demonise rapists as evil psychopathic strangers who prey on victims, which simply misinforms the public about the reality of the situation which is that around three-quarters of victims are raped by men they know, trusted, and live with.


  • 1. What recent moral panics have there been?
  • 2. In what ways has media coverage of recent moral panics been similar to or different from the treatment of mods and rockers?


  1. Deviancy amplification: the unintended outcome of moral panics or social policies whereby the media, in particular, exaggerate the social problem out of proportion.
  2. Moral panic: media generated public concern over a group ('folk devils') or behaviour that is viewed as threatening to social order.
  3. Folk devil: A term Stan Cohen used to refer to deviant groups at the centre of moral panics. Often their negativity is exaggerated by the media, and they are viewed generally as a threat to social order.
  4. Islamophobia: literally means fear of Islam, but used to describe the negative treatment of anything Muslim following the global terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.
Last modified: Saturday, 6 October 2012, 5:56 PM