The concept of moral panic is no longer useful

feb 24 2020

Abstract: Folk devils and moral panics by Stanley Cohen states that moral panic is an emotional state that takes root within an individual after being exposed to a negative outcry by mass media and can further be spread by that individual's verbal means. Whether it is originally spread by television, newspapers or the internet, the concept stays the same. The factual (if any) original data gets distorted and warped into something entirely different - because it is the negative preconception that captures the public's eye more often than detailed and accurate information.
Key words: Folk devils and moral panics, Stanley Cohen, mass hysteria, media manipulation, crowd mania, simulacra

Foto: Peter Senko (2018)Foto: Peter Senko (2018)

The goal of this essay is to thoroughly study available resources and use them in a way that would complement a piece of social research – the main emphasis will rest on the understanding and interpretation of the concept of moral panic and its connection to the elements of society. As such this essay using definitions, historical examples and more recent aspects of moral panic will argue that the concept of moral panic can still be applied today and as such it is still useful. Even though the circumstances have changed.

As any research, this essay has to have an already established groundwork and in this case, this source is the work of Stanley Cohen Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Cohen, 2002). Within which, the term of moral panic is defined as a state of being unsettled by certain phenomena through mass media, moreover this state is usually more aggressive than the actual phenomenon is harmful. Stanley Cohen based this idea upon his study of Mods and Rockers – two subcultures that were not fond of each other and their conflict has been fuelled by media and what we now identify as moral panic. The first part of this essay will cover the definitions of the term as well as several interpretations of moral panic, how it affects society and whether it can be more harmful than other actual danger that is not based on being spread by mass media.

The second part of this essay will cover most of the significant instances of moral panic taking place over the course of the last 50 years and what kind of influence it had on people then. This will mention the first emerging media craze about drugs, unsafe sex and AIDS during the 70s-80s, violent street crimes during the 90s as well as going so far to mention the mass hysteria that swept the American nation during the 1800s-1900s regarding witch trials and the murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey in the 17th century. When describing the media craze regarding sexuality, this essay will mention Foucault and his idea of a wounded and vulnerable family as best motivation for media when demonizing sexual deviance during the 70s-90s.

The third part will analyse moral panic today and will describe how the traditional media such as TV, newspapers, radio stations, etc. are all slowly losing their dominion over the general public and how most of mass hysteria is being converted to the global population ran by the internet. What are the key differences, how do people react/overreact and whether the conceptualized theory of moral panic from the past two-three decades can still be applied today. This part will utilize Stuart Hall’s work on mugging and the reaction from media and Kenneth Thompson’s interpretation and study of crime reporting; how the concept of moral panic exists otherwise criminal events would make no sense to the general public.

Definition of moral panic

The term moral panic describes a social reaction of mass anxiety based on the impression that a certain person, status or a group of people present a danger to society. The concept of moral panic is an addition due to the expansion of scientific understanding of social processes and changes within our society. It integrates several particles from disparate environments within itself, such as deviance, criminality, collective behaviour, social issues and social movement. (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994)

This social phenomenon was officially defined by Stanley Cohen during the 1970s by analysing media, in his work Folk Devils and Moral Panic: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. It is an important concept primarily due to the mutual effect between the forces of social reaction and control, mass media and some forms of deviant activities. (O'Sullivan, Dutton, & Rayner, 1994)

Regarding the work of Stanley Cohen, it must be said that he took inspiration from several American sociologists and their works, stating that there is a two-way depiction of youth culture – the opulent consumerist society and the threat of moral discipline and predication. During Cohen’s study of this phenomena youth was looked upon with envy and disdain, particularly in the light of their social lives. Which was being represented by the replacement of old relationships with free time and consumerism. Further, the youth was viewed as deviant, they were identified as hooligans and disorderly people who found pleasure and entertainment in assaults, fights and acts of burglary. (Thompson, 1998)

It is worth mentioning that before Stanley Cohen, this subject was touched upon by Jock Young in his study that was working around a spiral effect, which is the result of the interaction between media, public opinion, interested parties and politics. And resulting in the combination of all these factors the outcome is what Cohen defined as a phenomenon of moral panic. (Young, 1971)

According to the above-mentioned sociologists, moral panic is an overreacting interpretation of an occurrence that is reported by mass media. It is a status of public anxiety concerning certain happenings that are usually being more thoroughly explored than different, more serious issues. As such the anxiety and fear are far more elevated than what the situation calls for which means that the social reaction is disproportionate to the actual event, status or occurrence.

An important element within the concept of moral panic has always been the informative agent, which reports the possibility of a threat keeps it fresh in the minds of the general public. Such a threat is perceived as a representation of a social crisis, which further invokes the feelings that something must be done, and it reinforces the fact that it must be done as soon as possible. (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994)

As mentioned above, Cohen defined moral panic during the 1970s when he established the term into the general sub-consciousness and employment not only in the field of sociology but the study of media as well. According to him, Moral panic is that kind of attitude or reaction of the public towards certain social groups or sub-cultures which are based upon the ideas and beliefs that these groups present a danger to society. Cohen further states that moral panic itself is not actually something atypical and dangerous. A statement that this essay disagrees with and will further look into in its second part – how can moral panic influence the well-being of people. (Cohen & Downes, 2007)

As such it can be said that moral panic is a concept which enlightens the process of interaction between order and control, mass media and specfific acts of deviant behaviour. In such a spectrum, members of society are morally sensitive when their beliefs and rules are brought into question by those that serve as the origin point of such a social anxiety. Moral panic revolves around the threat of violation of a financial, social, legal or political status quo that said society has already gotten used to. Such a kind of threating behaviour is described as associal and the society in question then looks for various mechanisms which it could use to eliminate these threats. At the same time, there should always be an understanding that the percieved threat can be real and that it is being carried out by a specific group of people. And thusly moral panic is a question of reliable information, interpretation and reaction and there are various degrees of each and every one of these variables. If the general interest is bigger than what the situation calls for, it becomes disproportionate, the public interest in such a threat is above a realistic evaluation.

History of moral panic

This part is going to talk about historical examples of moral panic harming society – people under the influence of mass hysteria who have done terrible things and serve as a precedent that moral panic can in fact be very dangerous.

The first and classic example is the mass craze that was behind the witch trials from the beginning of the 15th century until late 17th century. This was a time when moral panic was running rampant and cost people their lives. During this time, there were two kinds of witches widely acknowledged by the general public – those that were according to the Church and common folk possessed by the devil and practiced human sacrifice, blood rituals, etc. and those that were practising healing using various natural remedies and herbs. Historical evidence has shown that there was little difference between the two. So instead of being in control of the mass hysteria, these herbalists and masters of superstition were controlled by it. (Rosenthal, 1993)

Moral panic is partly about some sort of symbolic representation. Certain parts of society are subconsciously trying to find a “folk devil” and define its actions and behaviour as something harmful. Many people at the beginning of the 15th century did not accept witchcraft as something actually dangerous but were instead later coerced by authoritative figures who were considered to be the pillars of community – a fact this essay will delve deeper into the third part, where nowadays global media has mostly cut away the middleman/the interpreter of bad news. (Cohen, 2002)

The murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey is an historical process connected with the so called “papal conspiracy” from the beginning of the 17th century. This was an instance of moral panic mainfesting as a panic against the Catholic Church. “Papal conspiracy” is an example that can be used to study the existence of moral panic in an era before the so called global generation and the development of TVs, radios, newspapers, etc. This is what brings the murder of Godfrey into the context of this essay. Edmund Godfrey was an English magistrate and held the judicial position of justice of the peace who was murdered by anti-catholics that considered him to be central to the plot of bringing back the reign of global catholicism. Waves of moral panic connected with the church were rushing over Europe, and England in particular, during the years 1596 to 1636 and manifested in riots, wars and the birth of new religions based on the judao-christian god and interpretation of the Bible. During this time, the death of Godfrey caused a major moral and social outrage, which was primarily fueled by the press. Asking questions what happened, how and why was he murdered. This lead to mass anxiety among the population of London as well as because thanks to the press, more and more people were becoming aware that Godfrey’s murderes were going unpunished. The combination of rumours taking root among the population and the continued agitation by the press resulted in a moral panic that swept London in riots, killings, damage to property, etc. (Paz, 2006)

Moral panic regarding sexuality over the course of 70s-90s in the past century was represented by media using one of Foucault’s ideas that the display of wounded and vulnerable family is the best source of motives behind a modern society. Foucault explains that sex in itself is important however in a modern society it is disjointed from other human attribtues as such can be demonized as the common stigma of the late 20th century was the “behind the closed doors” aspect. Foucault came to the conclusion that this is because our culture believes that sex is a physical manifestation of individual truth, that it describes the importance of us being and as such it has become the topic of heated discussions and panics. This aspect of moral panic is still being applied today as deviant, not necessarily illegal sexual behaviour is still a topic of many scandals and moral panics within our society. (Howe, 2008)

It is important to realize which physical (as well as psychological, but not within this context) diseases are most associated with morals. When it comes to AIDS, victims suffering from this disease were branded as outcasts, lowlifes and sexual deviants. They are marked as “carriers of evil” which are often discriminated against. (McNair, 2002) This process of moralization is accomplished by its negative representation by mass media which provide the main source of information about the normative forms within a society and its acceptable boundaries which should not be crossed by any “normal people”.

Moral panic today

Stuart Hall et al applied the concept of moral panic on the way how the English press processed the topic of mugging and assault. They tried connecting mugging with race and how the black community of London is a danger to law, order and the Brittish way of life. Hall remarks that the moral panic regarding muggers has contributed to making the issue seem much more serious, dangerous and definitely much more oriented towards racial hate. (Dittrich, 2012)

When it comes to reporting criminality media themselves rely upon the original “formulator” which in this instance is the instituiton controlling criminality – the police. Thompson talks about three formats of reporting criminality: 1, a report based on an official proclamation by the police regarding an ongoing investigation; 2, a report based on the status of “war on crime” commenting on police regulating crime in general; 3, a report on crime when the contents is based upon judicial hearings. (Thompson, 1997)

The initial issue which was crime and subsequently criminality was put into a wider social context. There were various medial articles that tried defining the reasons behind crime and the wider social cause of these incidents – going beyond simple individual motivations and lacking any academic voice behind them. Crime is percieved as an opposition to the fundamental values of our society and when it comes to moral panics the perpetrators are often demonized – as is the case with female offenders, mothers commiting murders, etc. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that reports regarding crime must be viewed as a final product of a complicated process which began with systematic categorization and extraction of events and themes according to the current social values and priorities. These are “professional reporting rules” that establish what can we describe as solid good news. The following and mentioned “reporting rules” are primarily oriented around events and stories that are widely considered to be “newsworthy and interesting” and are different from everyday mundane activites.
If the world cannot be presented as a ball of random and chaotic events then it must be identified according to its relevant social context. This process of identification and contextualization is one of the most important processes that media give such events meaning and make them comprehensible to the general public. Therefore, in the eyes of a citizen, these events make sense if they can be placed within an acceptable social and cultural identification. (Thompson, 1997)

And as such, the following conclusion can be made that what we as members of society understand as the “reality behind crime” is a social construct accomplished by news reporting and mass media. Which does not necessarily mean that it is harmless – as showcased by the historical examples this essay used in its previous part (witch-trials, murder of Godfrey, AIDS, etc). Which further supports the argument that moral panic itself has changed – the concept however stays the same and is a reaction. As long as there are enough people within a community that understand this, moral panic will not have such drastic consequences – and this is why the concept itself is still useful.


This essay talked about the theme of moral panic in context to both panics worldwide and those at home. The emphasis was put on the question whether the concept of moral panic is still useful today and after defining its aspects within both history and the field of academics, it has reached the conclusion that although the concept has changed over the years – it is still useful and very applicable.

As this essay has shown in its first part, moral panic and its concept is based upon constructive paradigm i.e. on contextual constructivism. The public can become outraged thanks to the efforts of moral undertakers or “crusaders” whose job is to do something, to react, and as such it is subjective as Goode and Ben-Yehuda established that no such thing can be objective. (Goode, Yehuda, 2009:156). Which is further supported by the second part of this essay which used historical examples to show that moral panic itself can and have been very dangerous. Causing actual harm and costing people their lives and thus it is a topic that should not be taken lightly.

In its last part, this essay based its findings upon the conviction that “reality”, when it comes to crime reporting that we know is primarily a social construct of mass media. Because our society does not see reality for what it is, but instead accepts it as a fact that reality is what people have been told or heard. This essay has summarized available and relevant sources and created a piece of work that is based upon research of the given issue that is the concept of moral panic, not just moral panic itself. With, it is more than likely that in the future we will witness events that can still be analyzed with Cohen’s concept of moral panic.

Author: lt. MSc. BA Jan Janek


Cohen, S. (2002). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Routledge.
Cohen, S., & Downes, D. (2007). Crime, social control and human rights from moral panics to states of denial : essays in honour of Stanley Cohen. Cullompton: Willan.
Dittrich, J. (2012). Stuart Hall and ‘Race’. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 230-232.
Goode, E., & Ben-Yehuda, N. (1994). Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
Howe, A. (2008). Sex, violence and crime : Foucault and the 'man' question. London: Routledge-Cavendish.
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