Moral panic is a term used to describe media presentation of something that has happened that the public will react to in a panicky manner. Moral panic has a tendency to exaggerate statistics and to create a bogey-man, known as a folk-devil in sociological terms. In recent years moral panic and media presentation have covered a wide-ranging number of topics from HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s to asylum seekers into the UK in the 2000’s. Moral panic goes back as far as World War One when the wartime government used the media to portray the Germans in a certain manner in the hope of provoking a response. The same happened in World War Two. In this case, the media did not have to portray Hitler in a certain manner as the public already had its view on him and that was an identical one to the government. However, moral panic and the media was used to create a fear of Nazi spies in the UK.


Post-World War Two, moral panic and the media was directed against the Communist Bloc. In America, ‘Reds Under The Bed’ created an atmosphere of hysteria against anyone who was even remotely seen as being linked to communism. Hollywood hunted out perceived communists in the film industry and even an international star like Charlie Chaplin felt compelled to move to Switzerland to escape this. However, both media and government worked for a single agreed purpose – ridding America of all communists and this had the support of the vast bulk of America’s population.


In the UK, social conformity was expected to ensure that social norms continued. In the 1950’s ‘Teddy Boys’ were portrayed by the media as young men hell-bent of tuning society upside down. This continued into the 1960’s with the media’s portrayal of the clashes between Mods and Rockers. The whole idea of the media’s coverage was to convince the general public that these youths were operating outside of the social norms desired by society as a whole.


Cohen (1972) found that minor fights between Mods and Rockers in beachside resorts were very much sensationalised by the media. One headline was “Wild ones invade seaside town – 97 arrests”.  In fact there were only 24 arrests. Cohen found that the media reporting led to increased policing which actually intensified the problem. More recently moral panics and consequent amplification have occurred about raves, football hooligans, girl gangs and terrorist threats.


In the 1980’s a moral panic was created in the media over HIV/AIDS. The famous iceberg advertisement by the government clearly hinted that there was a lot more to HIV/AIDS than the public could possibly know about with the vast bulk hidden from view. Some media outlets nicknamed HIV/AIDS the ‘gay plague’ stigmatising a specific section of the population as being the primary cause and carriers of the ‘gay plague’. While scientists gained a better understanding of HIV/AIDS as the 1980’s moved into the 1990’s and beyond, the illness was still seen by many as one either caused by or passed on by the gay community. When it became clear that this was not the case, the moral panic created by the media moved off in another direction blaming the general lax moral standards of the younger generation (both male and female) which then moved onto the next area of moral panic – the growth of the ‘laddettes’ – alcohol fuelled young ladies who attempted to copy the behaviour of young males. Statistically, the number of young people who behave in an anti-social manner at the weekend is dwarfed by the actual number of young people in the UK but the moral panic subculture created by the tabloid press would have the general population think differently.


Marxism sees the media in society as acting in the interests of the bourgeoisie by promoting the ideals and values which best serve them. The media is the single and most important part of the Ideological State Apparatus, (ISA), and is used to promote the notion of hegemony, the idea that society shares the same basic values and norms. Marxists argue that differences in politics, which is another part of the ISA, are there simply to promote the false ideas of democracy and freedom of choice, where as in the mainstream media, there is almost no difference in the portrayal of the generality of the morality of society, (Hard Work, marriage, national prise etc) as well as what exactly main stream political issues are. These issues, according to Marxists, are there to divide society and make it easier for the elite to maintain control. Stuart Hall’s book ‘Policing the Crisis’ (1980) looked at the moral panic of mugging and its effects in the media. He found that the media in conjunction with the bourgeoisie create moral panics in order to perpetuate fear and maintain control over the whole of society. The bourgeoisie felt a lack of control due to a rise in “deviant” cultures e.g. free love movement, drug cultures and stronger unions. Moral panic was used to perpetuate fear which enabled greater control over the proletariat. Such fears make the public want more police, which, Marxists argue would allow for even greater control over the population.


From the point of view of Functionalists, the media is free from an overall controller, and as such serves an important role in maintaining freedom and different opinions throughout society. Functionalists make the argument that there are indeed collective norms throughout society. However, the media helps to present the different points of views and issues where opinion differs.  


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex

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