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4.2: The Myth of Moral Panics

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    Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place. [1]


    Moral Panics, Sex Offender Registration, and Youth

    folk devils are the people who are blamed for being allegedly responsible for the threat to society. Folk devils are completely negative and have no redeeming qualities. This is how juvenile offenders, or “super-predators” as they were referred to in the 1990s. The narrative went like this:

    [3] Folk devils are the embodiment of evil and center stage of the moral panic drama. They have no redeeming qualities so it is easy for the population to fear and hate them.

    Agenda setting is the way the media draw the public’s eye to a specific topic. Framing refers to a type of agenda setting in a prepackaged way and narratives are about the story that is told. Said another way, framing focuses on the broad categories, segments, or angles through which a story can be told. Frames include factual and interpretive claims that allow people to organize events and experiences into groups. Narrative construction involves decisions by storytellers that determine the specific characters, plot, causal implications, and policy solutions presented. Narratives are pictures that the public already accepts and embraces (See Table 1 for examples of criminal justice frames and narratives). Journalists and reporters are taught to tell stories through first-hand accounts and experiences people have because audiences care about these human experiences and their stories more than they care about abstract societal issues. In theory, then, journalists and reporters are the gatekeepers to the information and they choose how they organize and present ideas to the public. This helps us create social meaning from events or actions (See Table 2 for framing techniques). [4]

    Table 1: Criminal Justice Frames and Examples of Narratives

    Frame Cause Policy
    Faulty system Crime stems from criminal justice leniency and inefficiency. The criminal justice system needs to get tough on crime
    Blocked opportunities Crime stems from poverty and inequality The government must address the “root causes” of crime by creating jobs and reducing poverty.
    Social breakdown Crime stems from family and community breakdown Citizens should band together to recreate traditional communities.
    Racist system The criminal justice system operates in a racist fashion African Americans should band together to demand justice
    Violent media Crime stems from violence in the mass media The government should regulate violent imagery in the media
    Narrative Costume Characteristic
    The PI Cheap suit and car Loner, cynical, shrewd, shady but dogged
    The rogue cop Plainclothes, disguise, often has special high tech equipment Maverick, smart, irreverent, violent but effective
    The sadistic guard Unkempt uniform Low intelligence, violent, racist, sexist, perverted, enjoys cruelty and inflicting pain and humiliation
    The corrupt lawyer Expensive suite and office Smart, greedy, manipulative, dishonest, smooth talker and liar, able to twist words, logic, and morality
    The greedy businessman Very expensive office and home, trophy wife Very smart, decisive, and a polished, unquenchable sometimes psychotic need for power and wealth

    Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing. [/footnote]

    Table 2: Framing Techniques

    Framing techniques per Fairhurst and Sarr (1996):
    • Metaphor: To frame a conceptual idea through comparison to something else.
    • Stories (myths, legends): To frame a topic via narrative in a vivid and memorable way.
    • Tradition (rituals, ceremonies): Cultural mores that imbue significance in the mundane, closely tied to artifacts.
    • Slogan, jargon, catchphrase: To frame an object with a catchy phrase to make it more memorable and relate-able.
    • Artifact: Objects with intrinsic symbolic value – a visual/cultural phenomenon that holds more meaning than the object itself.
    • Contrast: To describe an object in terms of what it is not.
    • Spin: to present a concept in such a way as to convey a value judgment (positive or negative) that might not be immediately apparent; to create an inherent bias by definition. (Fairhurst, G. & Sarr, R. 1996. The art of Framing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.)

    1. Bon, S.A (2015, July 20). Moral Panic: Who benefits from fear? Psychology Today,
    2. Cohen, S. (1972). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. London: MacGibbon and Key Ltd.
    3. Dilulio. (1995).
    4. Crow, D.A., & Lawlor, A. (2016). Media in the policy process: Using framing and narratives to understand policy influences. Review of Policy Research. 33(5): 472-495

    This page titled 4.2: The Myth of Moral Panics is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.