¶ … old fairy tale which has been called various things such as "Chicken Little" or "The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling" but whatever it is called the moral of the story remains the same: mistaken beliefs repeatedly said do not make the belief true. Throughout the ages, society has had to adjust to situations where scams, rumors, and mistaken beliefs have had to be handled in an appropriate way. The examples where society has not necessarily handled these circumstances are numerous. The Salem witch trials, Hitler's attack on the Jews in Nazi Germany, and even Orson Welles infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds," are all examples of how society reacted irrationally and inappropriately to reports and information. In each of these incidents, the media, in various forms, played a significant role and, as society becomes more media savvy and dependent, media's role and influence has increased.
One of the most glaring examples of this situation is the coverage of the various school shootings that have occurred in the United States in the past several years. Needless to say, the media has provided extensive, almost exhausting, coverage of such events to the point that the perception has been created among parents and the general public that school shootings are a profound problem. This perception has served to create an exacerbated fear that our nations' schools and school children are not safe in the public school environment.
The situation described above has been identified by sociologist Stanley Cohen as moral panic. According to Cohen, moral panic is when " (a) condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests (Cohen, 1980: p.9)." In the case of the school shootings the media's failure to provide information regarding the school shootings within...
The increased fear generated by the school shootings caused schools and communities to put in place proposed solutions such as increasing police presence in the schools, placing public pressure on state legislatures to initiate legislation that would lower the minimum age for trying children as adults, and even proposing that juveniles should be eligible for the death penalty. These were reactionary responses that may or may not have addressed the real problem behind the school shootings and they were fueled by the media's coverage of the events. A moral panic was created.
According to Cohen, the key elements or stages of a moral panic are:
1. Someone or something is defined as a threat to values or interests;
2. This threat is depicted in an easily recognizable form by the media;
3. There is a rapid build up of public concern;
4. There is a response from authorities or opinion makers;
5. The panic recedes or results in social changes.
Applying Cohen's elements to the school shooting situation it is important to understand what is meant by the term "moral." Implied in such term is that the perceived threat must not be significant. It cannot be a passing fad and it must be seen as a perceived threat to the very moral fiber of society. The panic occurs when the reaction to the perceived threat to the moral fiber is an inordinate demand for greater social regulation or control. There is a feeling among society that by adopting such measures will result in a return to traditional values and that society will be thereby safer.
This reaction caused by moral panic was further studied by sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda and published in a book entitled, Moral Panics (Goode, 1994). In their book Goode and Ben-Yehuda further explained how moral panics developed. They described how society reacts strongly and quickly to the perceived threat but that two other factors, volatility and disproportionality also appear. According to the two sociologists, volatility means that moral panics…
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