Sustained Moral Panic: The Weapon of a Dying News Media

Not all tragedies are equal; in the eyes of the mass media giants, tragedies are matters to be filtered through, until one comes along that checks all the right boxes. Does it make people concerned for themselves and their society? Can it be reduced to a simple, vague description that anyone can identify in their own lives? Does it touch upon a sensitive political nerve, and create a consensus of opposition? Can it be represented in the rhetoric of victimization? When all of the boxes are checked off, they know they have more than a story whose facts need reporting; they have a weapon which can be used to influence your votes in upcoming elections, assure your complacency in the revocation of rights, or manufacture your consent to the declaration of wars. This weapon is known as Moral Panic.

Moral panic is defined as public anxiety or alarm, in response to a perceived threat to the moral standards of society. The road to moral panic has several stops. The first is concern. This concern, limited at first, spreads from person to person, amplified by cultural forces, until rational concern becomes irrational fear. People come to believe something terrible is happening, something they cannot see, that they can’t control. It has come for others. It will come for them. Whether or not the threat is real, the response certainly is, and it is often excessive.

What’s more terrifying: fear, or the frightened?

CarpeDonktum’s Legion – Moral Panic Meme

The Daily Moral Panic

We have found ourselves, in the last five years, inundated with attempts to stir up moral panic. The media’s abuse of this weapon has gotten out of control. In the last two years alone, there has scarcely been a week in which there wasn’t an event which called for the coordinated efforts of news outlets to speak out against existential threats to our very society and livelihoods. Racism, sexism, fascism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia, refugees, gun violence, video game violence, bullying, fake news and the war on the press, and of course, when all else fails, an inevitable tweet from Donald Trump: the mainstream media would have us believe that any and all of these things are a growing threat to our democracies and our very ways of life.

The media present themselves as “breakers of the silence,” a brave resistance to age-old evils given a new face by recent events. Experts are brought on to shows, to discuss the impact of such immorality. Victims are made into so much emotional pornography, to fill every minute of the 24-hour news cycle. And just when you think they might move on, a breaking news report reveals a new story or new information that starts the cycle all over again.

But not just any story can be used to create moral panic. There are some stories far more tragic, just as newsworthy as the flavour-of-the-week crisis the media chooses to focus on, but it won’t see more than one article per media outlet. In the face of truly news-worthy events, the media will sometimes dedicate all their reporters to writing about a single tweet by Donald Trump instead. What filters do the mainstream media use to determine what deserves to be on the public’s agenda, and what doesn’t?

The Anatomy of Moral Panic

According to Sociologist Stanley Cohen, there are three required elements. The story must present a suitable enemy; a soft target which is easily denounced. White supremacists are an excellent soft target, as they are nearly extinct in the United States, yet you would be hard-pressed to find someone to doesn’t disagree with white supremacy. However, in the case of a 13 year-old girl who was beheaded after witnessing members of MS-13 stab her grandmother to death, the perpetrator was an illegal immigrant – presenting him as a suitable enemy would contradict other narratives being maintained by the media.

Second, there must be a suitable victim. Women and children are easy for people to empathize with; by impressing that this could have been your mother, or sister, or daughter, they can play on primal concerns that exist within us all. Everyone wishes to see women and children protected, and cared for; men, however, are the protectors, and elicit far less empathy as victims, unless they are part of an historically-oppressed minority.

And third, there must be grounds for consensus that this is not an isolated event. The media will generalize the event in such a way that others can relate to it, and present misleading statistics to ratchet up the fear; if enough people can imagine this simplified version of events occurring in their own lives, then it will be seen as an attack by the suitable enemy on an integral part of our society – a threat which must be addressed immediately.

These elements can tell you what might create moral panic, but until it is presented to the public by mass media and authorities, one cannot be sure which stories will stick, and which one’s won’t. Certain categories of stories often work better than others: stories involving young, violent working-class males, stories about school-related violence, stories about the “wrong” drugs being used by the “wrong” people, stories about child abuse, stories involving single mothers and welfare, stories which conflate legal immigrants with illegal immigrants, and immigrants with refugees, and of course, any stories pertaining to sex or violence.

The Camouflage of Moral Panic

Though often used to describe years-long processes of society-wide concern, moral panics in and of themselves are relatively volatile and short-lived. They can only last as long as the media and policy-makers can hold the public’s attention; but when multiple topics of concern are connected together under an umbrella of politics or ideology, a sustained moral panic can be carried out for years. The Satanic Panic of the 1980’s and 1990’s, for example, was not one single moral panic, but rather hundreds of instances of alleged institutional child abuse, taking place alongside the Iran-Contra affair, the Russia-Afghanistan War, The Gulf War, and the expectations of increasing crime in the 80’s and 90’s which never came to be.

The Satanic Panic began with the now-discredited autobiography, Michelle Remembers, which described Michelle Smith’s “recovered” memories of being used in rituals to summon Satan, which required the sexual abuse of children and slaughtering of animals to accomplish. The book laid the groundwork for the now infamous 1983 McMartin preschool trial, and more than 100 other trials investigating the practices of preschools across the country. Every one of these cases was fraught with stories coerced from the children and the accused alike; investigators would tell children to point out on anatomically-correct dolls where they had been touched, and ask leading questions in order to diagnose sexual abuse.

By 1995, most cases were summarily dismissed, with only a few cases of non-ritualistic sexual abuse of minors being convicted. But regardless of the facts, the media found these sensational stories too good to pass up, and greatly increased their readership and advertising in the process.

It didn’t help that the surrounding circumstances were equally sensational; these events coincided with the expectation that crime and gang violence would explode in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s.

Though these “Satanic rituals” and “superpredators” never came to be, the moralistic nature of this period was heavily influenced by the mainstream media and politicians. They set the agenda: Gennifer Flowers took a backseat to Satanic rituals in the New York Times, and the Whitewater controversy took a backseat to the Community Policing Initiatives in the Washington Post. Not even impeachment hearings against President Clinton would address the depths of his scandals; despite several controversies during his presidency, the only subjects on which the impeachment trial spoke were obstruction of justice, and immorality.

The Memory of Moral Panic

Of all the current members of Congress, 31 were representatives or senators during the 1998 impeachment hearings held against the former President. In those hearings, then-Representative Lindsay Graham posed a question to the Congress: “Is this Watergate, or Peyton’s Place?” This question, imploring his fellow congressmen to consider whether what they were investigating was a scandal, or merely a soap opera, is a question the media and policy-makers of the country might wish to ask themselves today. For when the dust settles around the events of Jacksonville, Florida, the mass media and policy makers alike will return to their calls for impeachment, their accusations of racism and sexism. None of these words should be thrown around lightly, but they inevitably will; for the sake of ratings, or votes, or just moral and social authority, they will keep their sustained moral panic rolling.

Unless, of course, we call them out. After all, what is more terrifying: fear, or the frightened?