Moral panic refers to situations where the general public experiences an unwarranted panic concerning politicians, a specific social issue, or even a situation where another interested party creates panics that direct what the public is focused on. Stanley Cohen (1972) creates a stage for the sociological study of moral panic through the examination of the violence between the two subcultural groups, the Mods, and Rockers. He notes that the major issue surrounded the inappropriate reaction to the social elements in the society towards the minor events. With this, moral panic takes the definition of a person, episode, or condition that emerges and becomes seen as a danger to social values and wellbeing. In their article “Rethinking Moral Panic for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds”, Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. Thornton (1995) present a criticism of the moral panic concept noting that the creation of moral panic is a way in which the modern media presents the public with daily events. Cohen (1972) rightfully presents the idea that the nature of moral panic is that it is offered in a stereotypical and stylized style by the media where the moral gates are operated by politicians, editors, bishops, and a host of other right-minded individuals who can pronounce their solutions. McRobbie and Thornton’s critique of the theory arises from the need to answer the calls for deeper consideration for the connection between the modern emergent media and moral panics. The critique does provide a contra claim of the deflationary and empowering consequences of modern media in that owing to recent technological transformation, it can intensify and unleash collective harm.
According to McRobbie and Thornton (1995), owing to the expansion and access of various kinds of media, the classical ideas on moral panic need to be revised. In modern times, the concept of moral panic is noted to have entered a popular journalistic dissertation that has seen controversy being used as a means to market a new trend. Moral panic has become a way through which readership is built both for press and television and thus become an unintended outcome of journalistic practice. The problem with moral panic is that it does distort and exaggerate the importance and seriousness of certain events. Cohen (1972) notes that a cardinal signal for moral panic is the existence of a united opposition against the phenomenon in question. But both an opposition and a phenomenon have to be created amidst the existing changes in the society thus the media comes in its role to distort ideas. According to McRobbie and Thornton (1995), businesses and politicians use faulty logic as a means to appeal to the emotions of the public to serve their corporate and political agenda. This manipulation of moral panic does contribute to the creation of moral entrepreneurship where the media plays a major role. The media in this case create a significant spiral in which they associate the various social issues and create moral panic concerning them. From this, the ideas of moral panic have to be altered to take into consideration the role of the modern expanded media.
McRobbie and Thornton’s criticism of the theory is hinged on the need to account for the plurality of reaction as well as the effectiveness and modes of discourse. Moral panic is therefore a culmination and fulfillment of a journalistic goal of creating readership since the media does have a more complex relationship with the various agents of social control and is driven by its assertiveness and commercial interests. The connection between the media and moral panic can be seen in the case study of knife crime in the United Kingdom and how the media uses its powers to spin narratives surrounding the issue. The increase in recorded cases of knife crime in the United Kingdom has prompted a high level of media alarm that has placed the state of youth viciousness as moral panic built upon the racialized appearance of black crime and violence. Just as McRobbie and Thornton note, the indicators of race are evident across the various media discourses and are established in the media reference to gangs and post-code wars. The article “Half of Black Children Do Not Live with Their Father. And We Wonder Why they’re dying” Rod Liddle (2019), reflects on the journalistic ambivalence towards culprits and victims without looking through the diverse involvements and opinions of the youth in the disadvantaged areas as the article presents reasons for the victim’s segregation from his school along with the father’s background.
The 2021 article by Nadine White, “Black Londoners Three Times More Likely to Be Murdered than Other Ethnic Groups, Figures Show” emphasizes the unaddressed levels of systemic racism as an issue propagating knife violence in the united kingdom. The nature of moral panic that McRobbie and Thornton (1995) address is visible in the fact that the media creates a narrative surrounding race as a major factor in knife violence. The article “Black People in UK ‘Five Times More Likely than White’ To Be Homicide Victims” by Talia Shadwell (2021) presents ethnicity as a major factor in knife crime citing more black people were likely to be victims. The three articles highlight the nature of McRobbie and Thornton’s criticism of the original moral panic idea in noting that the media works to constantly manage the representation discourse in general terms.
The moral panic idea does hold a simplified view of society but it does remain useful in discovering a specific social event such as the connection between the media and society. McRobbie and Thornton (1995) assert that the media plays a role in manipulation, this is seen in the discourse presented by three articles regarding knife violence in the UK. The media can create a significant spiral to which they associate various issues and raise the alarm about them. The result of this is that it instills fear of a specific race into the public consciousness.