The media has a very powerful role in society. It is very influential in creating any kind of change in society. Events take place and as soon as the media get involved the significance of these event increases immediately. Sometimes this involvement is so intense that a cultural shift occurs. It can influences politics or religion in such a way that society is in some sense transformed forever. In today’s society we have seen this in relation to social media. Social media has changed the way human beings communicate with one another. It has made each of us more connected and involved with the world around us. We can connect and communicate with others on the other side of the world at the touch of a button. McLuan describes this perfectly when he says “The globe is no more than a village.” (McLuhan, Understanding Media The Extensions of Man 1964)
Nowadays media is a constant presence in our lives. There are many buzz words or terms such as new media, electronic media, interactive media that are used to describe the different ways we use media. However we choose to describe these changes is in some ways irrelevant. The impact is that human beings are always engaged in some form of media throughout their daily lives. This increase in the use of different forms of media means that the role it plays within society has become a much more significant one. It has the power to generate a positive or negative feeling among the public. Panic is one of the most common feelings that the media is capable of spreading. I studied the effect of this in Sociology during my undergraduate degree. It came back into my mind when I was studying postmodern film this year because post modern films often attempt to point out the affect of having a constant stream of media images fired at us all day long.
These days most people carry around phones in their pocket and these phones are always online. People are switched on and tuned into the media at all times. The media has become an extension of ourselves. “Any extension, whether of skin, hand, or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex” (McLuhan, Understanding Media The Extensions of Man 1964 ) People are now more susceptible and more influenced by the mood and message of the media. This message can influence people greatly if it is used correctly. It is a position of power and a strong platform that can impose its message on people even without them knowing it. The television is a good example of this influence because people watch it but they cannot respond to it. Therefore they take the messages it is giving out at face value. It is similar to many classroom situations where the student absorbs the teacher’s message without question. They are supplying the information and so therefore they become the absolute authority on the subject.
Messages from today’s media are very often negative ones. Bad news seems to sell faster than good news. The media tends to sensationalise stories in order to make them more interesting or appealing to the general public. This is also true where panic is concerned. The media can spread panic faster than any other institution or organisation in society. They have the ability to project a constant stream of images and words with negative connotations onto our screens. They have direct access to the public and if their message is one of panic or fear it can spread like wild fire. The media has also started to replace religion in society. People now look to the media for moral guidance and advice. There is always someone on television, in the newspaper or on the internet giving their supposed expert advice on a range of different subjects. The combination of these negative messages and this role of moral responsibility mean’s the media has become the main generator of moral panic within society. McLuhan refers to this as the “age of anxiety”.
There are many ways in which the media can generate moral panic. It plays the role of judge and jury within society. The media can set the tone for morality. They report on what they say is moral and immoral behaviour. These moral boundaries can of course change and evolve as time goes on and society evolves. Legislation and reforms change and this impacts the perception of morality. Homosexuality is a good example of these changes surrounding morality. For a long time the media portrayed homosexuality as something that was immoral and that should be rejected and feared. It seemed to be presented to the public as an issue of morality. Now the media portrays an entirely different message in relation to sexuality.
Many popular television shows and movies have gay characters in them. It is now considered acceptable and even trendy to be gay or to have gay friends. The environment is another issue that has enjoyed a positive transformation in today’s media. People are now being encouraged to “go green”. A lot of money has been spent on campaigns, clothing and accessories in order to promote a positive image of going green to the public. They are told that they have a moral responsibility to the younger generation to do their part for the planet. These examples are of course positive ones but there are many others that are not as positive and that generate a sense of moral panic.
Periods of widespread panic seem to happen in cycles. At certain times a person or an event will spark a feeling of panic and they become known as a threat to society or too social values. The media focuses all of its attention on this event or on these individuals and the feeling of panic spirals outwards. All of a sudden people are bombarded with negative messages and images and they are all focused on this one thing. There are well respected figures in society such as politicians, or religious leaders are called upon to give their opinions on the evils of these events or individuals. Experts immediately begin informing the public on what to do in order to cope with this disaster. People are stirred up into a kind of frenzy and then, after a little while it all dies down again. These periods of panic and high anxiety do not last very long. Everything goes back to normal and the media waits for an opportunity to create the next storm. Of course sometimes these periods do last longer and a strong public reaction causes changes to occur in the form of social reforms or policy changes.
Most of these so called threats to society are seen as a new phenomenon that the public are unfamiliar with. Perhaps this unfamiliarity is what adds to the feeling of panic. People do not know what to expect or how to act and so they use the media as their guide. There are of course a few exceptions to this rule. Some issues are recycled and repackaged every few years and trotted out in order to stir up a healthy debate and get the public’s heart rate going again. These issues are usually to do with crime, the dangers of delinquent youths, drugs or alcohol. These issues are almost always linked with youth and the younger generation. They can also include issues of class and poverty. These so called troublesome groups within a society are very often those who are not very wealthy. They usually come from difficult backgrounds where their opportunities have been greatly diminished due to their circumstances. A divide is created and people feel as if it’s us against them, morality against immorality.
There is also a focus on the young more affluent youth. Many young middle class students have been thrust into the spotlight for committing acts of vandalism or violence. The media portrays this as the moral decaying of society as a whole. Older generations reflect on their childhood and how things have changed. This often produces an idealistic view of the past. It may seem strange that these same issues can cause panic over and over again within a society. Cohen links this to the collective memory of a society. People recall the same uneasy feeling that they experienced the last time these issues were reported on and they react to that memory. Cohen refers to these cautionary tales as folk devils and the public is thought by the media to fear and avoid them. (Cohen, 1972) He say’s “In the gallery of types that society erects to show its members which roles should be avoided and which should be emulated, these groups have occupied a constant position as folk devils: visible reminders of what we should not be.” (Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics 1972) Cohen has researched social reaction to juvenile delinquency extensively.
He has looked at this in relation to the media coverage of the mods and rockers fights that took place in the 1960’s in Britain. These were two conflicting groups whose battles got a lot of media attention during this time. Cohen noticed that the fights that got much wider coverage were not necessarily the ones that involved the biggest numbers or caused the most damage. He also noticed that the version of the events being reported by the media was very different to the one told by those who were present during the time of these disturbances. The media’s account of these fights was much more exaggerated. Cohen believes that the media reaction amplified the situation and kept the panic going for a longer period of time. The police then added to the situation by getting involved and the increased drama is what attracted more young people and made things worse. Cohen took his theory further by saying that this exaggeration produces a by-product where by focusing attention on the mods and rockers the media unintentionally helped to define a sub-culture that nurtured the differences between these two groups and added to their feud. (Cohen,1980)
Extensive media reporting of events such as this starts to define youth culture and makes them a more permanent fixture in society. History begins to associates a generation with certain behaviour and that in turn defines that generation as a whole. It is perhaps a self-fulfilling prophesy. If the behaviour appears to be more deviant this seems to please the younger generation. Perhaps this is due to the fact that good behaviour does not get much coverage and therefore you don’t earn your place in history. Each new generation tries to push the envelope a little bit further. The music and fashion of the time reflects this so called deviant behaviour. This creates increased panic because it is new and unfamiliar ground. Older generations start to feel uncomfortable the media then picks up on the tension between the two groups and reports on it in a heightened manner.
There are so many stories to choose from going on around the world. There are many different activities and events that peek young people’s interests but only a few of them attract the attention of the media. There are a number of reasons as to why some stories are more appealing to the media. One of these reasons is availability of images. The proximity to where these events are happening and the availability to get their hands on images of them impacts the importance the media puts on stories. The element of tragedy in a story also matters.
A human interest story where the public can see individuals mourning for a young person in tragic circumstances is a perfect combination because it allows society to collectively grieve and so the interest in the story is heightened because a consensus is reached by the wider public. When a story is local it also gets increased coverage. It doesn’t seem so abstract or far away to the audience and they connect more to the story. People see a town or village that is similar to their own and it resonates with them. Another factor that is said to have a bearing on the relevance of a story in the media is race and beauty. Some individuals get more coverage because they fit in with a certain image or they are simply more attractive to the media because of their looks.
Society experienced this type of moral panic in 2001 when 9/11 happened. This event changed the way people thought about Muslim and Islamic people and it made the word terrorism a regular part of everyday conversation. I was in my early teens and had very rarely heard this topic mentioned before but suddenly it was the word on everyone’s lips. Islamic and Muslim people were scapegoated and as a result feared through no fault of their own. They had become the “Folk Devil” that the public now felt very weary of them. For months after this event the public was constantly bombarded by images of the innocent victims who had been killed when the twin towers were hit.
A plan was instantly put in place whereby heavy security checks were implemented by the authorities whenever people wanted to travel on an airplane. These security measures were said to be there in order to protect the public against terrorist attacks. Even though the public didn’t want to go through these security checks every time they travelled they willingly succumbed to these safety measures because of increased levels of panic and fear. The comedian Tommy Tiernan makes reference to 9/11 in his DVD entitled “Tommy Tiernan Live”. In it he remarks on how he remembers watching reports of the impending doom after the 9/11 and then going outside expecting to see total chaos and disorder. Instead he was surprised to find that everything looked the same. (Tiernan, 2002) I think this really shows the impact the media coverage of 9/11 or events like it has on the average person’s psyche. We anticipate disaster and chaos after watching reports like these. There is an expectation that something bad is going to happen and so therefore we feel an increased sense of fear and panic. The media has the power and means to manipulate the general mood or feeling of the public towards a particular event, group or person. As a result the affect it has on generating moral panic within a society is significantly increased.
Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics.Oxon: MacGibbon and Kee Ltd.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: London: Taylor and Francis Group.
The Open University: Learning Zone, 1971. OU Learning Zone – Moral Panics. England: (Published 2011) Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65OP7w1NlHo (Accessed January 14th 2013).
Tiernan, T. (2002). Tommy Tiernan Live. Universal Pictures.