A moral panic can be recognised in the intensity of feeling expressed by a large number of people about a specific group of people who appear to threaten the social order at a given time. These people become 'folk devils', about whom 'something needs to be done'. This 'something' usually takes the form of increased social control, which mean stricter laws, longer sentences, heavier fines and increased policing of specific areas. After the imposition of these new controls, the panic subsides until a new one emerges. It is interesting to analyse the contexts of moral panic because they invariably occur when powerful interests groups in society are facing troubled times. (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 1994).
Cohen and others (especially Jock Young in his The Drugtakers (1971)) showed how agents of social control, particularly the police, 'amplified' deviance. They also demonstrated the media's rle in this process and thus started to draw attention to the ideological rle of the media in actively constructing meanings, rather than merely 'reflecting' some supposedly shared reality.
This approach was then developed by the Marxist critics of the media. Such studies were used to demonstrate how the media helped to avoid wider conflict in society by focusing our attention on the supposedly deviant behaviour of outsider groups, including youth 'gangs', 'welfare scroungers', trade union 'militants' and so on. By focusing attention in this way the media, it was claimed, contribute to creating and underpinning the social consensus on our society's core values.
Fowler comes close to suggesting that there is a deliberate conspiracy between media owners and journalists to construct reality in this way, a view of the media sometimes referred to as conspiracy theory. This is a not uncommon view held by critics of the media and there is evidence to support the view that newspaper owners are prepared to skew the news to favour their class interests. However, this is not a matter which is of primary concern to the hegemony theorists of cultural studies, who pay more attention to the ways in which cultural leadership is achieved and secured through the media. They tend to take the view that there does not need to be any deliberate conspiracy since journalists simply present reality from the standpoint of what is 'obvious' and 'natural' - and what is 'obvious' and 'natural' is what the dominant discourse signifies as such. (Cavanagh, A.2007)
Most societies at some time have been gripped by a moral panic and we need to know how to recognise one when it occurs. Sociologists are interested in the development of issues into moral panics. It is important to consider who actually has the power, if the power is the appropriate term here, to define the event as a moral panic, and it is also equally important at point the specific phenomenon becomes moral panic.
The occurrence of moral panic
Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) outline what they see as the five main features of a moral panic: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality and volatility.
There must be awareness that the behaviour of a particular group or category is likely to have negative consequences for the rest