4.2. The Myth of Moral Panics

Alison S. Burke

Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place. [1]

Moral panics arise when distorted mass media campaigns create fear and reinforce previously held or stereotyped beliefs, frequently centered around ethnicity, religion, or social class. Often, moral panics occur swiftly, focusing attention on the behavior and then fluctuating concern over time. The most problematic aspect of the moral panic is that the hysteria often results in a need to “do something” about the issue and most commonly “results in the passing of legislation that is highly punitive, unnecessary, and serves to justify the agendas of those in positions of power and authority.” Moral panics focus attention on what we should fear and who we should blame for that fear. Instigators of moral panics frequently misinterpret data for their own agenda. Cohen (1972)  said at least five sets of social actors are involved in a moral panic. These include 1) folk devils, 2) rule or law enforcers, 3) the media, 4) politicians, and 5) the public. [2]

Moral Panics, Sex Offender Registration, and Youth

In her article, “There Are Too Many Kids on the Sex Offender Registry,” Lenore Skensazy discusses the unpopular view that perhaps sex offender registration is more harmful than helpful.

The purpose of sex offender registries is to prevent one of the worst of the worst crimes: sexual assault.  However, Roger Lancaster, author of “Sex Panic and the Punitive State” suggests that “Only a tiny fraction of sex crimes against children are committed by people who are on the registry.” About 5 percent of people on the list go on to commit another crime, a far lower recidivism rate than almost any other class of criminals, including drug dealers, arsonists, and muggers (Skenazy, 2018, para 4).

“Available research indicates that sex offenders, and particularly people who commit sex offenses as children, are among the least likely to re-offend,” Human Rights Watch has found.  Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the “single age with the greatest number of offenders from the perspective of law enforcement was age 14.” This means that 14-year-olds, more than any other age, are being placed on a lifetime registry.

Sometimes this results from minors engaging in consensual sexual encounters simply because they are underage and cannot legally consent.  And in some states, sexual contact is not required to end up on the registry. In some instances, sexting under the age of 18 is a felony and can earn someone a place on the registry.  Until recently, Missouri offenders were grouped together in one category regardless of the offense so individuals who urinated in public endured lifelong registration and were categorized with the worst of the rapists and molesters.  There was no distinction or tier structure.

Is lifelong registration appropriate punishment or is it being strictly punitive?  Most offenders serve their time in prison and therefore serve their debt to society. This is not the case with life long sex offender registrants who can’t live near a school, park, or playground and must report to authorities anytime they get a new job, a new place to live, or even a new hairstyle. They can never fully re-enter society and are seen as never being able to be rehabilitated.

All these requirements are based on the “flawed but pervasive idea that those convicted of sex offenses became incurable and predatory monsters requiring—and deserving—lifetime punishment,” writes Emily Horowitz, a professor of sociology at St. Francis College and author of two books on this subject.

What would happen if the registry were to disappear? All other criminal laws would remain in place, including increased penalties for repeat offenses. Only the list, and the dehumanization it wreaks would be gone.

“If my child was victimized, I’d want to kill a person,” Horowitz says. “But what if my child was a victimizer? I’d also want them to have a chance”  (Skenazy, 2018, para 15).

Read more at: https://reason.com/archives/2018/04/09/there-are-too-many-kids-on-the

First, folk devils are the people who are blamed for being allegedly responsible for the threat to society. Folk devils are completely negative and have no redeeming qualities. This is how juvenile offenders, or “super-predators” as they were referred to in the 1990s. The narrative went like this:

We’re talking about kids who have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future….And make no mistake. While the trouble will be greatest in black inner-city neighborhoods, other places are also certain to have burgeoning youth-crime problems that will spill over into upscale central-city districts, inner-ring suburbs, and even the rural heartland…They kill or maim on impulse, without any intelligible motive…The buzz of impulsive violence, the vacant stares and smiles, and the remorseless eyes…they quite literally have no concept of the future….they place zero value on the lives of their victims, whom they reflexively dehumanize…capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons…for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high. [3] Folk devils are the embodiment of evil and center stage of the moral panic drama. They have no redeeming qualities so it is easy for the population to fear and hate them.

Second, the police or other law enforcement officials (prosecutors or even the military) are essential for propagating the moral panic since they are responsible for upholding and enforcing codes of conduct and expectations of the citizens. They are expected to protect society from the folk devils by detecting, apprehending, and punishing their evil ways. Furthermore, the moral panic can offer law enforcement legitimacy as moral crusaders and protectors. Law enforcement has a purpose to defend society and rid it of the folk devils which threaten their safety and well being.

Third, the media are particularly powerful in creating and advancing the moral panic. Generally, news media coverage of folk devils is often skewed and exaggerated. The media coverage often displays the folk devils as much more threatening to society than they really are. Journalists feed public anxiety and fear, which heightens the moral panic. Media influences policy in two ways:

1) they select the “important” issues (agenda setting),

(2) they problematize policy by attaching meaning to it. In this way, the frame and construct the narratives.

Agenda setting is the way the media draw the public’s eye to a specific topic. Framing refers to a type of agenda setting in a prepackaged way and narratives are about the story that is told. Said another way, framing focuses on the broad categories, segments, or angles through which a story can be told. Frames include factual and interpretive claims that allow people to organize events and experiences into groups. Narrative construction involves decisions by storytellers that determine the specific characters, plot, causal implications, and policy solutions presented. Narratives are pictures that the public already accepts and embraces (See Table 1 for examples of criminal justice frames and narratives). Journalists and reporters are taught to tell stories through first-hand accounts and experiences people have because audiences care about these human experiences and their stories more than they care about abstract societal issues. In theory, then, journalists and reporters are the gatekeepers to the information and they choose how they organize and present ideas to the public. This helps us create social meaning from events or actions (See Table 2 for framing techniques). [4]

Table 1: Criminal Justice Frames and Examples of Narratives

Frame Cause Policy
Faulty system Crime stems from criminal justice leniency and inefficiency. The criminal justice system needs to get tough on crime
Blocked opportunities Crime stems from poverty and inequality The government must address the “root causes” of crime by creating jobs and reducing poverty.
Social breakdown Crime stems from family and community breakdown Citizens should band together to recreate traditional communities.
Racist system The criminal justice system operates in a racist fashion African Americans should band together to demand justice
Violent media Crime stems from violence in the mass media The government should regulate violent imagery in the media
Narrative Costume Characteristic
The PI Cheap suit and car Loner, cynical, shrewd, shady but dogged
The rogue cop Plainclothes, disguise, often has special high tech equipment Maverick, smart, irreverent, violent but effective
The sadistic guard Unkempt uniform Low intelligence, violent, racist, sexist, perverted, enjoys cruelty and inflicting pain and humiliation
The corrupt lawyer Expensive suite and office Smart, greedy, manipulative, dishonest, smooth talker and liar, able to twist words, logic, and morality
The greedy businessman Very expensive office and home, trophy wife Very smart, decisive, and a polished, unquenchable sometimes psychotic need for power and wealth

[Footnote]Surette, R. (2011). Media, crime, and criminal justice: Images, realities, and policies (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing. [/footnote]

Table 2: Framing Techniques

Framing techniques per Fairhurst and Sarr (1996):
  • Metaphor: To frame a conceptual idea through comparison to something else.
  • Stories (myths, legends): To frame a topic via narrative in a vivid and memorable way.
  • Tradition (rituals, ceremonies): Cultural mores that imbue significance in the mundane, closely tied to artifacts.
  • Slogan, jargon, catchphrase: To frame an object with a catchy phrase to make it more memorable and relate-able.
  • Artifact: Objects with intrinsic symbolic value – a visual/cultural phenomenon that holds more meaning than the object itself.
  • Contrast: To describe an object in terms of what it is not.
  • Spin: to present a concept in such a way as to convey a value judgment (positive or negative) that might not be immediately apparent; to create an inherent bias by definition. (Fairhurst, G. & Sarr, R. 1996. The art of Framing. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.)

Fourth, politicians are also protagonists in a moral panic. They spin the public opinion and present themselves as the safeguards of the moral high ground. They are similar to law enforcement in this drama and they have an obligation to protect society from folk devils.

The fifth and final category of moral panic is the public. The public is the most important actor on the stage. Public anxiety and fear over the folk devils is the central theme of moral panics. A moral panic only exists because the public cries out for policymakers and law enforcement to “do something” and save them from the alleged threat that has been created.

Carlson, M. (2018). Fake news as an informal moral panic: The symbolic deviance of social media during the 2016 US presidential election. Information,  Communication, and Society.   https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2018.1505934

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/1369118X.2018.1505934?journalCode=rics20


  1. Bon, S.A (2015, July 20). Moral Panic: Who benefits from fear? Psychology Today,  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201507/moral-panic-who-benefits-public-fear
  2. Cohen, S. (1972). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. London: MacGibbon and Key Ltd.
  3. Dilulio. (1995). https://www.weeklystandard.com/john-j-dilulio-jr/the-coming-of-the-super-predators
  4. Crow, D.A., & Lawlor, A. (2016). Media in the policy process: Using framing and narratives to understand policy influences. Review of Policy Research. 33(5): 472-495

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