Stanley Cohen (1973) suggests that the media depiction of anti-social behaviour helps to construct folk devils. Folk devils become the focus of public fears and anxieties. They are made to stand for wider problems and concerns and, in the process, become the figures who exemplify ‘what is wrong with society today’. Today’s folk devils might be the ‘yobs’, ‘hoodies’, ‘yobettes’ or ‘alco-yobs’ referred to in newspaper headlines. In Cohen’s original study they were the ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’, members of two youth cultures who sometimes fought each other and attacked seaside shops in mid-1960’s Britain.
These mobile young people (mods were associated with motor scooters and rockers with motorbikes) were portrayed as being out of place and out of control, and thus threatening to both social order and the normal expectations of young people’s behaviour. Their apparent affluence, mobility and potential for violence were seen as profoundly disturbing.
Cohen argues that through the portrayal of such folk devils, the media can create a moral panic in society at large. By making folk devils a focus for wider anxieties, the media increase or amplify those anxieties, shaping a mood of public fear and outrage. This fear and outrage then produces demands that ‘something must be done’ (to restore order and punish the disorderly).
A key point about a moral panic is that it is irrational. The fears that it generates are out of proportion to the scale of the actual behaviour that is the original focus for the panic. In part, this is because the panic focuses many fears and anxieties, but it also reflects the dramatisation of the folk devils as alien or evil. Folk devils are typically pictured as ‘mindless’: their behaviour is so different from that of ‘normal’ people that they can only be dealt with by brutal punishment. Unlike ‘normal’ people, they do not have meaningful or comprehensible reasons for their behaviour. This dramatised distinction between ‘normal people’ and ‘deviants’ is central to Cohen’s analysis of moral panics.
For Cohen, the media play a major role in creating moral panics by fostering irrational fears about anti-social behaviour. The role of the media is the central focus of his work. He suggests that ‘moral entrepreneurs’ (politicians and self-appointed representatives of ‘outraged ordinary people’ or the ‘silent majority’) play a role in building the moral panic by fuelling outrage and demanding action. These moral entrepreneurs are used by the media to define the situation, frame the problem and add weight to the sense of panic or crisis.
However, beyond suggesting that moral panics reflect – and work on – deep-seated social anxieties, Cohen does not offer many reasons as to why the press or television should create folk devils or start new moral panics. Nevertheless, his ideas of moral panics and folk devils have proved to be significant ones. Many studies since his original work have made use of these concepts, especially in relation to media representations of young people and anti-social or disorderly behaviour. Stuart Hall
Stuart Hall and his co-authors (1978) argue that the growth in media coverage of crime in Britain during the early 1970s contributed to a widespread belief that there was a crisis in society: a crisis that involved an apparent breakdown in law and order. This crisis was focused on a new ‘folk devil’: the mugger (involved in street robbery). ‘Mugging’ was a term imported from the United States: a society viewed in Britain as marred by urban disorder, violent crime and racial conflict.
Hall et al. emphasise the important role played by the media in constructing crime and disorder. They draw on Cohen’s study and his ideas of folk devils and moral panics. However, they locate the media’s role – and the construction of ‘mugging’ as a crisis of law and order – in wider social and political conflicts. By the early 1970s, they argue, a long period of political ‘consensus’ (general agreement about the direction of British society and how it should be governed) was breaking down.
The British economy was experiencing trouble and there was growing industrial unrest with strikes increasing. However, there were many other forms of social and political dissent: conflict between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, the rise of feminism, the emergence of black and anti-racist politics, the growth of student politics and the counter-culture, as well as new types of social disturbance associated with young people (a rise in football violence, for example).
According to Hall and his colleagues, the British state (representing the British ruling class) tried to define this multiple economic, social and political crisis as a problem of crime and disorder. That is, they identified it as a crisis of law and order that demanded tougher policing and sentencing. Politicians, senior police officers, judges and other spokespeople acted as ‘primary definers’: defining the problem and demanding a crackdown on crime.
The media took their cue from these definers – especially in the identification of ‘mugging’ (in which the mugger was usually identified as a dangerous young black man) – as the most alarming example of the ‘rising tide of crime’. These constructions of crisis in the media addressed public anxieties and concerns about the state of Britain and turned them into a moral panic about mugging.
In the process, Hall et al. claim two things happened. First, the real and deep-seated causes of the crisis were obscured. Inequality, conflict and dissent were instead turned into a crisis of law and order that needed more and tougher policing (hence their book’s title: Policing the Crisis).
Second, Britain took a step towards becoming a ‘Law and Order society’ in which police powers were extended, sentencing got tougher and politicians could always claim the need to be ‘tough on crime’. Young black men were increasingly likely to be ‘stopped and searched’ by police and be viewed as threatening, dangerous and disorderly. This created a long-lasting tension in many British cities.