Pandering to an audience or whipping up moral panic?

I mentioned a recent Sunday Star Times article in a previous post. A front page story about the conviction of a sex offender with form. He pleaded guilty and at the time of writing was awaiting sentencing. I said at the time that the SST was promoting moral panic and creating a climate of fear with its reporting. I’ve also had an interesting day: an exchange with two senior SST staffers about that post. One demanding that I take down a photograph because of copyright issues and one demanding a retraction (I deal with this at the bottom of this post). However, in general I think the point I was making about hysteria and sensational reporting has been borne out.

I’ve been back and had a look at the readers’ comments posted in response to the original story. It’s actually quite scary on two counts:

  1. that there are newspaper readers and people online who actually think that shooting paedophiles in the head or chopping off their penises (physically or chemically) and putting them all on a national public database will make the world (or at least our children) safer
  2. that the SST online gatekeepers allow this kind of ill-informed, prejudiced and violent stuff to be posted on its site as a “commentary” on an article in the paper.

It thought it timely to revisit the idea of moral panics and here’s a pretty straightforward definition from Wikipedia to get us started:

Moral panic is a sociological term, coined by British sociologist Stanley Cohen, meaning a reaction by a group of people based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. It has also been more broadly defined as an “episode, condition, person or group of persons” that has in recent times been “defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” They are byproducts of controversies that produce arguments and social tension, or aren’t easily discussed as some of these moral panics are taboo to many people. Characterization of the group reaction as a moral panic requires a presumption that the group’s perceptions are unfounded or exaggerated.

The news media is an essential ingredient in fomenting a moral panic – without media exposure it can’t really go anywhere and people tend not to panic. There’s a site called mediaknowall that provides a succinct position in relation to the media’s participation in moral panics.

From the Witch Hunts of the Renaissance to the Pokémon Panics of the early 21st century, the media has long been a central part of the sociological phenomenon known as ‘Moral Panic’. It is important to understand this in general terms when dealing with Violence & the Media, as so much of the media coverage of violence takes the form of a clearly defined moral panic, although the panics do not so often lead to legislation. What they do lead to is increased sales.

Ah, yes the economic imperative. It’s also easy (nay, lazy) journalism and plays to the prejudice of a section of the audience. Thank goodness for things like the Rethinking Crime and Punishment project which is attempting to put crime and punishment into some perspective.

There’s also evidence that “naming and shaming” sex offenders doesn’t work, let alone chopping them up or sticking them on a desert island (two of the charming solutions suggested by SST commenters).

One cogent but anonymous poster on the SST story mentions an academic report “Deobrah’s Law”, which examines the name and shame method and concludes that it doesn’t really work.

There is a considerable amount of criminological or legal work exploring notification but much of it is in abstract terms rather than in presenting empirical inquiry. Naming and shaming are likely to have at least three serious consequences: the identification of the victim with the potential to revictimise him or her; a resulting punishment frenzy among a community; and distortion of any rational discussion in the sex offence and child abuse areas. While it is clear that notification offers plenty of shame there is no reintegration of the offender into the community. The offender is more likely to be subjected to harassment and ostracism. Indeed, notification laws offer nothing but more of the ‘rough justice’ that sex offenders seem to have been condemned to in recent years. It is the kind of ‘rough justice’ that is likely to nullify the rehabilitative effects of treatment programs, and is likely to escalate fear of crime and the incidence of false allegations.

Another commenter, Shaun Maloney, draws attention to his own postgraduate research in the area of sex offending and moral panics. It too makes interesting reading:

The prevalence of sex offending in New Zealand has reduced considerably in the past decade. Convictions for ‘violent sexual offences’ dropped more than 28% between 1995 and 2004, while in the same time period convictions for ‘non-violent sexual offences’ reduced by over 26%. Despite this, the media still gives a lot of attention to the risks posed by child sex offenders. The dangers of offending are often exaggerated and stories not always put into context. High profile cases often result in intense publicity even though they tend to be anomalies. This sort of coverage results in the public being misinformed about the true risks that child sex offenders actually pose…

This misinformed anxiety has resulted in a moral panic. Private and public policies in New Zealand are being unduly driven by headline-making anecdotes of horrible individual cases, rather than by refined data-driven policy analysis.

Unfortunately, this kind of research does not often make it into the Sunday papers. On the other hand, deviance from social norms makes for compelling headlines. It doesn’t seem to matter that the effect is mis-information and a rising tide of fear.


In my previous post, overcooking the eggs, I mentioned a possible contempt of court issue in relation to the paedophile story on the front page of the SST (what the bulk of this post has been about). I said:

Is there a contempt issue here? Identification of the accused might be an issue in the court.

Then, Russell Brown of Public Address kindly pointed out that I’d missed the point that the offender had pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. I responded in a comment and made a small correction. I argued that my main point – the creation of a moral panic – was still valid.

I toyed with the idea of pulling the lines from the post, but on reflection decided to leave it. I’m glad I did, earlier today I caught up with fellow blogger Steve Withers (truthseeker) and we chatted for ages about life, blogs and the universe. He agreed that I had done the right thing by leaving my original post, noting Russell’s comments and providing the “evidence trail”.

We all make mistakes from time to time and, like most journalists and bloggers, I put mine on the “front page” as a rough draft of history. Obviously, the SST is not in contempt for publishing details of the case and previous convictions, I don’t think I said directly that it was. I asked a question and stand corrected. My point was about the impact of such reporting and I think in this post I’ve covered that and redeemed myself.

4 Responses to Pandering to an audience or whipping up moral panic?

  1. ZMan! says:

    Check out this book, if you want to see what the sexual abuse moral panic is all about.

  2. […] real issue is media generation of “moral panics“: The media act as agents and conductors of moral indignation – they create media […]

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