Moral Panics: How Media Influences the Legislature

By Daljinder Nagra

The purpose of this paper is to analyse the role of news media in the shaping of legislation, through the social phenomenon of moral panics. The nature of moral panics and the media’s role in shaping public opinion will be discussed and their implications to the statute books analysed.

The moral panic

A moral panic is a recurring phenomenon in which a society expresses an intense reaction to a perceived situation. Cohen’s study of the Mods and Rockers subcultures yields perhaps the most widely accepted definition: ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.’ This is the start of a cycle, the next step of which is the reporting of the emergent deviance in a stylized and stereotypical manner by the mass media. Solutions are devised by ‘right thinking people and socially accredited experts’ and the panic finally dissipates or becomes more prominent as a result of failure to address the perceived threat. (Cohen 1972/80: 9).

Occasionally a moral panic will have long lasting effects, particularly in the context of legislation. Whether the deviance in question dissipates and fades from the public conscience or causes fundamental changes to society, largely depends on the actors involved in the life cycle of the panic.

The role of media in the life cycle of a moral panic

‘The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event’ (Lippmann 1922). The relationship between media and society has been debated by scholars for nearly a century. It is well acknowledged that media coverage influences public opinion (McCombs & Shaw 1972), but in determining its role in the life of a moral panic, consideration must be given to the specific effects mass media has on society.

If viewed from a purely functionalist perspective, the most basic function of the media is to provide surveillance. The theory being that complex societies rely on mass communication to provide individuals with the information they need to carry out their own function (Perse 2001: 54). This reliance on the media brings about further functions to society.

Conferring status

By reporting on particular events, individuals or groups, the news media bestow status and authority on them by legitimising their status – testifying that they are significant enough to require public notice (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1948: 20). As a story is consistently repeated across all media outlets, so its importance grows as the public begin to adopt belief in its importance (Perse 2001: 98). This gives the media power to set the agenda.

Comments made by Mr. Justice Morland during the trial of the killers of James Bulger in 1993, regarding the influence of ‘video nasties’ on the behaviour of the defendants, highlights the media effect of conferring status on reported news. He remarked: “Whilst there has been no actual evidence of this, I suspect that exposure to violent movies has something to do with your actions” (Morland 1993). Initial reports down-played the significance of video nasties in the Bulger case (Kirby & Foster 1993), having only being brought about as a result of speculation by the trial judge. However, widespread coverage of the case had conferred status to it, and it was now a perceived threat in the public conscience.

Cohen describes this as the first pre-condition to the formation of a moral panic. The second being that this perceived threat needs to coincide with the perception that certain values needed protecting (see enforcing societal norms, below). Once both pre-conditions are fulfilled, the ground is set for a societal change (Cohen 1972/80: 16).

The coincidence of the supposed role of video nasties in a crime of such gravity, and the concerns raised by the case over the innocence of children, led to a moral panic over the availability of such films. ‘Child’s Play 3’, a film about a murderous doll, came under particular fire, merely due to allegations that John Venebles’ father had rented it in the month prior to the murder (Kirby & Foster 1993). There had been no evidence of the defendants having watched the film. However, the media now had something tangible to thrust before the masses and blame for this threat to society.

Following the life cycle of a moral panic, the furore surrounding the film escalated. The Sun newspaper started a ‘burn your video nasty’ campaign, encouraging the public to burn any copies they could lay their hand on ‘for the sake of all our kids’ (The Sun 26 Nov 1993). Bowing to public hysteria, the legislature passed through the Criminal Justice Act 1994. This extended criminality established in the Video Recordings Act 1984 to cover the supply of unsuitable material to minors (Part VII s.90 Criminal Justice Act 1994).

The perceived threat to society now having been neutralised, the moral panic surrounding video nasties subsided, leaving only the criminalisation of acts that had previously not been considered, due to the status conferred upon them by media reporting.

Enforcing societal norms

A secondary effect of society’s dependence on mass media is that we rely on it to enforce societal norms. Perse refers to this as ‘Socialisation’, where a society is defined by commonly shared cultural norms and values, and mass communication serves to reinforce those values by legitimising them in the public eye (Perse 2001: 98). News media, by virtue of their position, ‘have long operated as agents of moral indignation in their own right’ (Cohen 1972/80: 16). By being able to structure the importance of news, the media is able to frame the agenda. Anything regarded as out of the perceived social norm being marked out as a threat.

The moral panic over gun ownership following the 1996 Dunblane massacre highlights the influence mass media has over societal norms, and its resulting influence on legislation. A newly identified threat emerged in the aftermath of the shooting: that any member of the public could legally possess handguns. Britain had previously clamped down on gun ownership in the wake of the Hungerford massacre of 1987 (Firearms Amendment Act 1988). Dunblane was the second time in less than a decade in which large numbers of people had been killed by licensed gun owners. The fact that the solution to the previous massacre had not been enough to protect from the perceived threat of gun owners, and that now this threat was aimed towards children, was enough to create a moral panic.

Media reporting of the massacre not only brought the deviance to the attention of the masses, it also publicised the agenda of other moral entrepreneurs in the panic, which were deemed to have the same interests. The Snowdrop campaign, formed by relatives of the victims, was a political pressure group lobbying for reform to handgun ownership laws. “Everyone wants the pleasure of seeing their child grow up … by banning all handguns we have the opportunity to give our children a safer future” (Pearston, quoted in the Independent 1997). Citing children’s welfare as the primary need for stricter gun control was critical to the campaign’s success in reforming the law. The petition, with over 700,000 signatures, was highlighted by a series of sensationalist adverts (Rowe 1997). The use of celebrity voices and moral overtones served to confer status to the campaign, whilst calling for the protection of children reinforced society’s values.

The panic was answered by a change in legislation with the Firearms Amendment Act (part two) 1997 – effectively banning private ownership of all types of handgun. The negative media stance towards gun ownership saw 160,000 firearms surrendered to police amnesties and there was a significant drop in recorded firearms offences in the year of the ban (ONS 2001). The Snowdrop campaign then dissipated, having achieved its aims. The panic over the threat to children also faded from the public conscience, societal norm having deemed to be successfully restored by legislation.

Problems with media influence

Whilst it may be argued that creating legislation in reaction to a public outcry is a fast track way for a society to implement the changes it wishes to see, the media’s role in moral panics can have adverse effects.

Deviance amplification

Deviance amplification is a phenomenon related to media hype of a particular issue. The contention is that occurrences of deviance may actually increase rather than decrease as more coverage is given to it (Wilkins 1964). The decisive factor in the amplification of a deviance is sensationalist reporting.

The moral panic surrounding mephedrone is a good example of this. Before 2010, the drug was a legally available stimulant that enjoyed limited popularity amongst clubbers (Mixmag 2010). The drug was linked in the media to the sudden deaths of two teenagers in Lincolnshire (BBC Tue 16 Mar 2010), and suddenly there was yet another threat to the nation’s youth. Media attention focussed on the issue of the drugs ready availability, and a moral crusade against all such ‘legal highs’ began. As coverage grew, as did incidents of the drugs usage. Sensationalist reports of pre-teens taking mephedrone (Lidiard, E. 2010) were accompanied by articles speculating on its physiological effects (Campbell, D. 2010).

The intensity of worry and confusion over mephedrone caught the Government by surprise. Parliament reacted quickly to quash the panic by criminalising possession and sale (Misuse of Drugs Act 1971), but not before media hype had raised the profile and popularity of a previously obscure rave drug.

‘Knee-jerk’ reaction legislation

While a legislative change in the wake of a moral panic can serve to calm the media and political storm, often such statutes are hastily devised and ill considered. The root cause of the initial panic goes ignored, while focus is given to the problem as defined by media coverage.

The mephedrone situation highlights this problem. In their haste to ban the drug, Parliament disregarded the advice of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) – a panel of experts set up for the sole purpose of advising the Government on drugs policy. This led to resignations from the Council over the Government’s decision being based on media and political pressure (BBC Fri 2 Apr 2010). Experts in the field are concerned that such reactionary legislation is merely serving to criminalise young people and is doing nothing to promote awareness and education of the real issues behind youth drug taking (Carlin, E. 2010). That it has now emerged that neither of the teenagers who died – sparking the moral panic – had mephedrone in their systems only serves to show the haste and recklessness with which the Government enacted this legislation.

Ineffective, reactionary legislation is a hallmark of many moral panics. The gun control measures implemented in the late twentieth century have done nothing to stop the recurrence of gun violence towards children (Glendinning, L. 2007), nor have the attempts to protect children from unsuitable content in media stopped the occurrence of child on child violence (Walker, P. & Wainwright, M. 2010). Media influence over moral panics distorts the real issue by presenting the news in the stereotypical way. This can be damaging to society overall as more actions are criminalised and freedoms curtailed in the interest of protecting societal values dictated by the news media.

Agenda setting

Agenda setting theory discusses the media’s role in shaping the public agenda through its control of what is made available in the public sphere. ‘The public’s beliefs in the importance of issues corresponds more closely to news coverage than to real-world indicators’ (Perse 2001: 99). The dominance of the media agenda over that of the public is a negative effect of society’s reliance on mass media for information. However, the effect on the legislature is only felt when the media aims to influence the agenda of Government through moral panics. Increasingly, media institutions – particularly tabloid newspapers – have taken it upon themselves to lobby policy makers for change. This is usually on the back of a perceived threat and purported to be supporting the public agenda.

The ‘for Sarah’ campaign initiated by the News of the World ( lobbied for the passing of ‘Sarah’s law,’ which would give parents the legal right to know details of sex offenders who posed a risk to their children. Whilst the proposals were initially dismissed as ‘unworkable’ by the Home Office (BBC Thur 13 Dec 2001), access to sex offender information is now to be rolled out nationally following successful trials (Hughes, M. 2010).

Whilst there was no doubt considerable public support for the campaign, care must be taken in such cases. Due to the reliance on mass media, it is difficult to ensure that its agenda truly reflects that of the public. This poses serious questions in light of the significant influence over law making the media enjoys.

Concluding Remarks

The phenomenon of moral panic has a curious effect upon society. The news media is considered to be reflective and supportive of societal norms and therefore raising legitimate concerns in its reporting. However, its functional status and our reliance on it, affords it great power to manipulate the situation, leading to the detriment of the masses through increasingly restrictive and ineffective legislation.

However, reliance on news media is not going to go away. The legislature can guard against media influence by distancing drafting of legislation from media coverage and relying on experts to conduct their own evaluations on the dangers of a perceived threat. However, as has been seen in the case of mephedrone – or indeed any of the highlighted examples – politicians are quick to disregard expert analysis or even fact, to satisfy public opinion. Flawed legislation as a result of this leads to recurring moral panics and society faces the same issues repeatedly. This has been tragically illustrated by recent Cumbria shootings. At the time of writing, Police had not identified the sort of weapon used by the gunman. However, the news media has already started focussing on the issue of shotguns, the only type of firearm for which legal ownership is still permitted. It will be interesting to see how much emphasis the media puts on this aspect of the story, and whether legislative change will occur, as has been the case in the two previous massacres. As has been shown, restrictions put in place during the time of moral panic rarely remedy the root cause of the problem. It merely serves to appease ‘public’ opinion, which is influenced by news media seeking to further their own agenda.


News of the World: ‘For Sarah’ campaign. [online] (29/05/2010)

The Guardian online: Walkerg, P. & Wainwright, M. (Fri 22 Jan 2010) ‘Edlington brothers jailed for torture of two boys’ [online] (29/05/2010)

The Guardian online: Glendinning, L. (Thur 23 Aug 2007) ‘Boy, 11, shot dead outside Liverpool pub as he played football’ [online] (29/05/2010)

Carlin, E. (2 April 2010) ‘My ACMD resignation letter to the Home Secretary’ [online] (29/05/2010)

BBC News (Fri 2 Apr 2010) ‘Government adviser Eric Carlin quits over mephedrone’ [online]

BBC News (Thur 13 Dec 2001) ‘Sarah’s law unworkable’ [online]

The Sun Newspaper (26 Nov 1993)

The Guardian online: Campbell, D. (Sun 17 Jan 2010) ‘Fears grow over safety of legal high mephedrone’ [online] (29/05/2010)

BBC News (Tue 16 Mar 2010) ‘Arrest after teenage M-CAT users die in Lincolnshire’ [online] (29/05/2010)

The Westmorland Gazette: Lidiard, E. (Thur 1 April 2010) ‘11-year-olds using mephedrone in South Cumbria’ [online] (29/05/2010)

Mixmag online (2010) (29/05/2010)

Wilkins, L. (1964) Social Deviance: Social Policy, Action and Research. London, Tavistock.

Cohen, S. (1972/80) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. Routledge, New York.

Lazarsfeld, P.F., & Merton, R. K. (1948). ‘Mass communication, popular taste and organized social action’. In Marris P. (Ed.) (2002), Media studies – a reader (pp. 18-30). New York, New York University Press.

Perse, E. (2001) Media Effects and Society. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Macmillan.

EBook available from (29/05/2010)

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). ‘The agenda-setting function of mass media’. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176-187. (2010). CinemaScream –‘Demonising films is child’s play’. [Online] available from: (29/05/2010)

The Independent Online: Kirby, T., & Foster, J. (1993) ‘Video link to Bulger murder disputed’. [Online] available from: (29/05/2010)

The Independent Online: Hughes, M. (2010) ‘Sarah’s law to be rolled out nationally’. [Online] available from:

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (29/05/2010)

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (29/05/2010)

Firearms Amendment Act 1988 (29/05/2010)

Firearms Amendment Act (part two) 1997

The Independent Online: (Tue 15 April 1997) ‘Dunblane Snowdrop petition’. [Online] available from: (29/05/2010)

The Independent Online: Rowe, M. (Fri 2 May 1997) ‘Snowdrop withers but battle to curb guns lives on’. [Online] available from:  (29/05/2010)

Office for National Statistics (2001): Firearms 1994 – 2001 Regional trends [online] available from: (29/05/2010)

  1. Hey there,

    This is a tremendous analysis on the influences of legislature. I especially enjoyed your analysis and believe it would be useful if people could analyze the media in your perspective, haha.

    I’ve been thinking this for a while, could never have put it to words:

    politicians are quick to disregard expert analysis or even fact, to satisfy public opinion. Flawed legislation as a result of this leads to recurring moral panics and society faces the same issues repeatedly.

    Excellent, very well done 🙂

  1. July 12th, 2010
    Trackback from : The Glaring Facts

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