Essay: ‘Moral panic’

The term ‘moral panic’ can be defined as a ‘disproportional and hostile social reaction to a condition, person or group defined as a threat to societal values’. It is a term commonly associated with the media where stereotyping is represented and this leads to the demand for better social control and creating a reaction from the public eye, hence the term ‘panic’ (McLaughlin & Muncie, 2001). Hall et al. (1978) also analysed the idea of a ‘moral panic’ and suggested that when the reaction to a person or group is ‘out of proportion’ to the actual ‘threat’ and professionals in the area such as police and politicians also have a similar reaction and begin to voice solutions, rates of crime etc., in addition to the media representation of the so called ‘threat’ which becomes sensationalised and exaggerated, this is when it is appropriate to name the situation a moral panic. Cohen (1972) first looked at moral panics and stated that there are certain periods where society experiences moral panics and these could last for a lifetime or could be short-lived and forgotten. Cohen (1972) was one of the first to look at the term moral panic around Mods and Rockers in Britain and focused on the media coverage on these groups in the 1960s. The descriptions and the definitions the media used was the focus as it was the main outlet for society’s information. Cohen (1972) found that the media exaggerated statistics including the number of youths involved, the extent of the violence and the damage caused. Further distortion of events increased due to the sensational headlines and use of dramatic reporting. Cohen also found that the media used the word ‘mod’ to symbolise deviance and this symbolisation led to other events that may not have had anything to do with the current situation to be linked. Cohen continued on to describe the findings as having three common characteristics: diffusion, escalation and innovation. Diffusion is where situations in other places become associated with the original situation. Escalation is where there are demands for extreme measures to be carried out in order to minimise and exterminate the threat and innovation refers to the ‘increased powers’ for the police and courts to sort out the threat. Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) also identified five key features that could describe moral panics: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility. In other words, a situation or event occurs and sparks panic among society which leads to the person or particular social group involved being labelled as folk devils then this goes on to spur a reaction which is ‘broad and unified’ within society. This leads to the exaggeration of the situation and the potential threat it poses which is further multiplied by the media’s reporting which could spark the panic but could also eliminate it too.
When it comes to street violence, youths are widely associated with this type of deviant behaviour. A recent ‘moral panic’ which was associated with youths and street violence was actually an item of clothing: the hoodie. During the 1990s, the term became associated with the sudden appearance of a subculture or group of people named ‘chavs’, young working class youths, in the UK. This led to the use of the term ‘hoodie culture’ used both by the media and public (Marsh & Meville, 2011). It is particularly in the UK that hoodies have been reacted to in such a negative way, so much so that the item of clothing has been banned in public places such as the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent. This banning of hoodies and other items of clothing which specifically could hide the face brought the ‘hoodie culture’ into the public’s awareness and this led to the raised concern of shoppers being weary of youths in such clothing (Marsh & Meville, 2011). The ban sparked public interest and debate and this led to the ‘meaning’ of hoodie being studied by journalists and individuals within education. McLean (2005) stated that hoodies stroked ‘fear into the heart of most people’ and Harrington (cited in McLean, 2005) on the subject of the Bluewater ban said that the ban ‘demonstrates a growing demonization’ on young people and there is an overreaction to any behaviour by these young people. This suggests that the concern over street violence involving youth can be seen as a moral panic because banning an item of clothing just because it is associated with such deviance due to the media representation of youths and what they happen to be wearing has been exaggerated which has meant that extreme measures would have to be taken to keep the public happy and enforce social control. The moral panic about hoodies according to Marsh and Meville (2011) was part of a wider concern about the anti-social behaviour of youths and, as with other panics, the reaction to this has been criticized by those within education and those working in the criminal justice system as exaggerated and unreasonable.
More than 65% of people consider youth crime is rising and experts agree there can be a connection between antisocial behaviour and serious youth crime. However, statistically, youth offending is actually falling. The number of 10-to-17-year-olds convicted or cautioned for a crime fell from 143,600 to 105,700 between 1992 and 2002 which was a drop of almost 26% (Barkham, 2005). Despite the dramatic drop in recorded crime overall, concerns about the behaviour of young people remains high, suggesting that society does not consider factual statistics when worrying about crime rates. In other words, stories of youth crime and general crime overall are sensationalised by the media and their representations of youth and descriptions used such as ‘out of control teenage gangs’. Concerns over youth crime and street violence have been consistent throughout the years as shown by Cohen (1972) for his work on Mods and Rockers. The behaviour of young people since then has caused anger about moral decline and lack of social control.
Crimes statistics show black youths, particularly young black males, commit a disproportionate amount of crime, however the media is known to sensationalise news stories and make vast exaggerations. In the early 70’s, an example of street violence that was first recorded as a ‘moral panic’ was mugging. Hall et al’s (1978) Policing the Crisis study demonstrates how the media shapes public views regarding a particular group in society. The 1970s moral panic surrounding muggings was blamed predominantly on young black men. For example, Arthur Hills was stabbed to death near Waterloo Station in London and this was one of the first crimes to be labelled as a mugging in the media. The stories in newspapers highly reported this type of crime as new and frightening. Professionals in the area such as police and judges were adamant that this was a huge threat to society. This even led to people thinking that the streets of Britain will become like those of New York or Chicago which had very high rates of street violence at the time (Hall, 1978). Hall criticised this form of reporting, stating that the panic and reaction towards these events were not understandable because in the past ‘footpads and garrotters’ had also committed violent crimes on the streets which were not labelled as muggings and therefore the idea of ‘mugging’ and ‘violent street crime’ was not new at all. Also the Home Secretary reported that ‘mugging’ was on a 129 per cent rise however Hall stated that there was no way to measure this because there was not an exact definition for this crime nor did a law apply to it. From Hall’s study on the statistics there was no evidence that violent crime was rising as fast in the time leading up to the panic. Using the nearest legal category to mugging which was ‘assault with intent to rob’, the official statistics showed a yearly rise of an average of 33.4 per cent between 1955 and 1965, but only a 14 per cent average annual increase from 1965 to 1972. This type of crime was growing more slowly as the time the panic took place then it had done so in previous decades.

Another example of a moral panic which involves street violence is the emergence of girl gangs and stories about how they ‘roam the streets randomly attacking innocent victims’. This has been a recurring story in newspaper headlines and magazines in recent years. Whilst there may be some support for these claims, the stories are likely to be a distortion of the facts; this is shown by statistics on offending patterns. A recent self-report survey found that assaults committed by females are more likely to involve a victim they know already and the victim is more predominately male rather than female (Budd et al., 2005). There is little known knowledge about the actual nature and seriousness of girls’ violent offending. It may be that assault carried out by a female is more likely to be as a result of anger or an act of self-defence, or against a police officer when confronted perhaps during a drunken night out, or parents, family members, or members of the public are more likely to bring violent acts committed by females to the attention of the police.
Outside the UK, there are other examples of moral panic and amplification by the media, for example slashing cases in Singapore. This involves Singaporean youth gang members who have recently have been reported in the media sparking fear among those living in Singapore (Palatino, 2010). The high documentation of these criminal acts is slightly exaggerated further by the mass media. These reports spark the public’s fear of being attack by youth gangs especially when high-profile cases such as the murder of Darren Ng at Downtown East was reported to occur in the evening between 5.30pm and 5.57pm which is a time period where school children would be on their way home. This further fuelled the anxiety felt by parents who were said to be already paranoid of their children making their own way to school. Moreover, there appeared to be very easy access to graphic and explicit pictures of the victim that were allowed to be released across both printed and online news outlets which sparked even more of a widespread panic of youth gang members being more brave to commit the crime again anytime during the day. Like in the UK, this ‘panic’ is slightly disproportional as updated statistics proves that crime rates in Singapore have been steadily decreasing. .
The series of attacks triggered the search for explanations on the idea of the rising of gang violence. Society aimed to explain the nature of fights taking place and whether they were random or due to revenge and the focus was also on the structure of gangs. Following the Downtown East incident, many reports talked about youth gangs- how an action as small as staring can lead to violent fights, reports also talked about why youths joined these gangs. News reports of the extreme cases reminded readers about the significant attack at Downtown East that created further concerns over gang-related violence in Singapore. News reports of being arrest were frequent to remind the society of the strict laws and the consequences of such violent acts. Although there were no specific details mentioned, the report came with comments by Minister of Home Affairs, K. Shanmugam, to assure the public tough acts were taken to tackle youth gangs. Comments by public figures like Minister of MCYS also bring public attention to at-risk youths on the importance of increase community initiatives to prevent them from gang associations. The situation of the Singapore youth slashing highly supported Goode and Ben Yehuda’s (1994) features of moral panics.
Black youth crime and the image of black youths in the media have generated considerable publicity in recent years. The recent fatal knife and gun crimes in London involving black youths were highlighted by the media which in turn produced a moral panic surrounding the issue.
In recent years there has been quite a lot of media coverage involving black youths and crime. Particularly in 2006 and 2007 there was a spate of fatal stabbings and shootings amongst black youth. For example, the deaths of Kodjo Yenga and Adam Regis in March 2007. These two murders were of huge interest to the media as it was during a period where black youth crime in London was highlighted. Kodjo Yenga was stabbed in the heart just five days after being interviewed on television about knife crime and its prevalence. Just days after this murder, Adam Regis was stabbed to death on the streets of East London on his way home after meeting with friends. These are only two examples of black youth crime that made its way into the media in 2007. There had in fact been over twenty murders involving black youths in London alone in 2007 (Okoronkwo, 2008)
It would be useful to gain an understanding of why black youth crime is such a huge issue and why it is highlighted so much in the media. News agendas and news values ultimately decide what is to be broadcasted and in what particular order. There are twelve news structures and news values that shape crime news (Jewkes, 2004). Under the news value threshold it is stated that in order for something to be deemed newsworthy it has to meet a certain level of significance. The media create moral panics according to their criteria of news values (Okorokwo, 2008). ‘Once a story has reached the required threshold it may have to meet further thresholds to stay on the agenda, the story is often kept alive due to the creation of new thresholds, some stories are used as fillers during quiet news periods and tend to be reported in waves, suggesting a widespread social problem rapidly approaching crisis point,’ (Jewkes, 2004, p.41). The media has been accused of sensationalising events surrounding violent black youth crime, attaching a level of drama making it newsworthy. This reporting of crime and deviance plays a vital role in shaping the public’s view of crime and its suspects. Eighty six percent of white homicide victims are killed by other whites, and most homicide victims know each other.
In conclusion, it seems that concern over street violence can be seen as a moral panic because overall crime statistics show that crime is actually decreasing rather than decreasing. However, in order to earn good money and sell more, the media seem to exaggerate and sensationalise every lone even to make it seem like it happens every day even if it’s a rare occurrence. A good example to support this claim was the Lee Rigby murder. One lone horrible act of violence had the public up in a panic over fears they would be hacked in the street or murdered in a similar way even though the perpetrators were caught. This goes to show how much power the media really has in terms of social control.

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