Moral Panic

A moral panic, as defined by Stanley Cohen, occurs when “…[a] condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”

The Salem witch trials. Those were produced by a moral panic.

The “red scare” during the Cold War, when many Americans became fearful that their friends and neighbors might secretly be Communists. That was also probably a moral panic.

The Depression-era concern that jazz music and marijuana were destroying American society. Definitely a moral panic:

Moral panic is a useful term for studying media for two reasons:

  1. Moral panics are always spread through some form of media.
  2. Moral panics are almost always provoked by a change in media, or the introduction of a new medium.

As an example of the latter, look at what happened after Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Wells played a prank on the nation, broadcasting a fake news story covering a Martian invasion of the United States. According to newspaper coverage the next day, lots of people panicked. (Except they didn’t. ) Any immediate panic over invading Martians (not the “moral” kind) was followed by a genuine moral panic over the perceived ability of radio to convince gullible listeners of just about anything.

It could be argued that we are currently experiencing a series of moral panics about the effects of the internet, new media, and social media on our society.

  • Is Facebook changing our values, making us more superficial or narcissistic?
  • Are video games making us more violent?
  • Are cell phones diminishing the value we place on face-to-face interaction?

We don’t have answers to these questions. Yet.

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