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  1. 1. Stanley CohenIn the latest of her articles on influential media theorists, Lucy Scott-Galloway introducesStanley Cohen, the man who coined the term, and defined the concept of moral panic. Sheexplores his theory through media representations of teenagers.EssentialsStanley Cohen is a contemporary theorist and Professor of Sociology at London School ofEconomics. Exploring the impact of the mass media on human social behaviour, more specificallycrime and deviancy, he is most famed for his creation of the term moral panic in his original 1972book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: Creation of Mods and Rockers. The book has had such aninfluence in the study of media effects that it has had several new editions, the most recent in a 200230th anniversary edition offering a new introduction ‘Moral Panics as Cultural Politics’. Of greatest useto the study of media, are his associated concepts of moral panics, folk devils and the deviancyamplification spiral.Research interestsCrime and Deviance; social control; prisons; mass media; political prisoners; human rights violations;atrocities and suffering.Folk devilsFolk devils are the building blocks of a moral panic. They are the people who are represented by themedia as outsiders, challenging dominant ideology with their ‘deviant’ behaviour, and are blamed forcrimes or other sorts of social problems.Moral panicCohen then identified the role of the media in reporting an isolated event or group of similar incidents,generating (sometimes unfounded) public anxiety and in some cases hysteria that a group (generallya minority or subculture) may pose a threat to law and order or public health.By representing the minority group or subculture as narrative antagonists, the media are intending toreinforce conformity to (their own) dominant social values.However, members of the minority group or subculture may make an oppositional reading and usethese representations to further define their collective identity and therefore strengthen their perceived‘deviant’ behaviour.Deviancy amplification spiralThe deviancy amplification spiral refers to the way in which the media report on events eads to amoral panic. For example, a story may appear about some ‘deviant’ act – either illegal or somethingconsidered morally wrong by the dominant ideology. Whilst this event may be ‘newsworthy’ bycommon standards, news values – the criteria by which news media select and allocate prominenceto their stories – generally include ‘continuity’; stories that are already in the news. Previouslyunreported stories or those that would not previously have been considered newsworthy then achievepublication or broadcast, as they confirm the pattern, and the moral panic gathers pace. Any contrarystories or statistics challenging the perceived trend are ignored.How it worksEarly in the morning on a rainy day in March, my students filed obediently into class and sat in theirplaces. Out came paper and pens and they waited for the lesson to start. One student, a bright andarticulate girl, was a little more reserved than usual, looking glum, and hadn’t taken her hood downfrom where it had been shielding her head from the rain. I smiled at her and made a joke commentabout her sporting the very latest in ‘ASBO-chic’. There ensued a long and quite heated class debateabout hoodies, media representations and teenage identities.In the past year or so, have you ever stood on or walked down a street, perhaps with a few of yourfriends, perhaps even – God forbid – wearing a hoodie? On those occasions, have you ever been metby suspicious glares, disapproving glances or even had passers-by cross the road so that they don’twalk too near you? Unfortunately, these experiences are so common now for some teenagers, they
  2. 2. don’t even notice. Semiotically, the public are reading signs – such as your age and clothes – asindexes of behaviour, and victims of the latest ‘moral panic’, teenagers are now stereotyped intohood-wearing, knife-wielding social deviants who can’t distinguish between right and wrong.If this experience is familiar to you, consider why people might perceive you in this way. According tothe Uses and Gratifications model of audience effects, people use the media to find out about theworld around them, in many cases things, people or places that they have no first-hand knowledge of.In these cases, media representations become all they know.Now think about the representations you see of teenagers in the media – especially the news mediawhich people perceive to be factual. Following the highly publicised ban of customers wearinghoodies at Bluewater Shopping Centre in May 2005, dozens of headlines flooded the news media –especially the sensationalist tabloids – blaming hoodie-wearing youths for social problems.Hoodie ban pays off for shopping centre (The Daily Mail, 10.05.05)Hoodie kills WPC (The Sun, 13.05.06)500,000 Kids in Hoodie Gangs (The Sun, 26.05.06)In reality, the news reporting on a relatively small and logical event – a shopping centre banningbaseball hats and hoodies so that CCTV cameras could always get a clear picture of faces – causeda trend in news reporting and cultivated a social phenomenon.1. Young people began to be defined by their clothing, to the extent that the ‘hoodie’ becamerepresentative of the person in The Sun’s absurd headline above, ‘Hoodie kills WPC’.2. Previously neutral words, such as ‘hoodie’ and ‘youth’ become loaded with negative connotationsby their frequent use in reports on the moral panic.3. In fictional texts, the hoodie can become an item of costume that is a shorthand code tocharacter – an undesirable one!4. Young people themselves, wanting to be different from the conformity of adulthood and to buyinto the ‘cool’ of resisting authority, wore their hoodies with pride, leaving Joe and Jane Bloggs on thestreet suddenly seeing hoards of youngsters in hooded tops, convinced they’re about to get mugged.Discussion point– If we hadn’t had CCTV to record shoppers in public spaces, which intensified the need to seefaces, would the hoodie phenomenon have gathered the pace it did?Activity– Get a newspaper or range of newspapers for a particular day or week.– Make a note of any stories which include teenagers.– For each story, identify whether the teenagers are represented as protagonists, antagonists orvictims.– Lastly, identify any words or phrases that are being loaded with negative connotations.Quotable Quote‘I think the bad press that went with hoodies was blown out of all proportion.’ Ritchie Cunningham, theheadmaster of Inverness High, where the hoodie has been adopted as part of the school uniform.GlossaryASBO: Anti-Social Behaviour Order, first used in 1999.News Values: The criteria used to decide which stories are given coverage and prominence.Oppositional reading:A meaning made of a text by a person whose social position puts them in directconflict with the preferred, or intended meaning.Sensationalism: A trend of some media to present stories in a controversial, over-exaggeratedmanner.Social deviant: Behaviour which differs from the norm or from the accepted standards of a society.Uses and Gratifications: A media effects approach that considers the audience active in makingmeaning of texts, based on their uses of the media to meet their own different needs.
  3. 3. Worth a visit to the library...Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley CohenCohen’s original account of media coverage of Mods and Rockers in the 1960s as a moral panic casestudy. The new introduction tracks moral panics in the thirty years since the book’s originalpublication, including asylum seekers and paedophiles.Moral Panics, Kenneth ThompsonThompson uses a number of contemporary case studies to explore the nature the moral panic in theBritish media. Studies include Moral Panics about youth and clubbing, sex and AIDS, violence and girlgangs and sex on TV, as well as an account of the original moral panic about Mods and Rockers.Wider contextsWorking towards your A2 media? Then you will come across the wider contexts – the social,historical, political and economic contexts. These provide valuable background for your interpretationof media texts. The idea of dumbing down can be a useful starting point for exploring some of thesewider contexts in a general way, before applying them more specifically to texts like celebritymagazines or Big Brother.Lucy Scott-Galloway teaches Media and Communication Studies at Havering College.This article first appeared in MediaMagazine