Click here for a list of
additional resources.

Fear & the Media

Moral Panics

The fears we share as groups are often anxieties about the direction society is headed. We worry about the next generation, the economy, our hometown or nation and how changes might affect our own lives and those of our friends and family.

Some of these fears grow and become what sociologists call moral panics. The media of the time, political leaders, advocacy groups and old-fashioned word-of-mouth can help spread, and sometimes fan, these collective fears. Eventually, they can stir a level of concern far out of proportion with the actual threats. Some moral panics have recurred along common theme lines throughout history. They pop up from time to time with a slightly different focus.

Dangerous New Inventions?

In the late 19th century, when practical bicycles were first introduced in America, some people warned that t new mode of transportation would cause bodily harm. Among the allegedly possible ailments was "bicycle face," which antibicyclists claimed was the product of excessive worry over maintaining balance while riding.

In the 1970s, microwaves became common household appliances, and people began to worry about radiation exposure from the ovens. Long-term animal studies have yet to link cancer to exposures that even exceed the radiation leakage levels approved for microwaves in the United States.

Today, the focus has become cell phones and the potential health effects associated with their use. While some safety concerns related to new inventions have been warranted, others have been a lot of hype paired with little actual risk. Into which category would you place our current concerns about cell phones?

Ruining the Youth of America?

Another recurring panic is the fear that new forms of diversion are corrupting the next generation.

In 1954, publishers created the Comics Code Authority to regulate and approve new comic books. It was, in large part, a reaction to a book called The Seduction of the Innocent, and a panic about the corrupting power of horror comics. Many people felt the extremely popular comics were the cause of juvenile delinquency.

When the rock ‘n' roll craze first swept the United States, many viewed Elvis Presley's swiveling hips and Jerry Lee Lewis' feverish performances as lewd and dangerous. Many adults worried that the new style would entice the younger generation to rebel.

Today, many people feel video games and hip hop music are damaging the moral fiber of America's youth and leading to an increase in adolescent violence. Do you think these fears are appropriate? Or have they been blown out of proportion, raising them to the level of moral panics?

Non-recurring Panics

Other moral panics seem to be individual events, not closely related to any previous instance of mass hysteria:

The witch hunts that struck Europe from 1450 until 1700 are a classic, tragic example of a moral panic at work. During that time, tens of thousands of people, mostly women, were executed for allegedly being witches. Some attribute the witch hunts to social turmoil and the lack of centralized control. Those in the U.S. may be more familiar with the Salem Witch Hunts, which began in 1692 and resulted in the execution of another 20 people and the imprisonment of about 200 in Salem, Massachusetts.

Edgar Allen Poe fans will be familiar with the moral panic that grew around the fear of being buried alive in the 18th and 19th centuries . This fear became so pervasive that "security coffins" became trendy. These specialty coffins came complete with breathing pipes and bells or other signals to be used for alerting others in the case of premature burial. Medical practices were still quite primitive at the time and people held that the dead often woke up only to find themselves doomed beneath the ground.

More recently, countless media accounts have warned caregivers to check trick-or-treat bags for deadly tricks - razor blades, needles drugs or poison in their goodies. But as of 2006, there have been no known cases of children being killed or seriously injured by contaminated treats that they received while trick-or-treating.

Genuine Fears

It's important to note that moral panics aren't baseless, made-up notions. People truly believe they have something to fear, and the concerns often sprout from reasonable uncertainty. For example, companies and agencies around the world spent billions of dollars preparing computers for the year 2000. There was a valid concern that some computer systems might have difficulty with the change, but the media fanned people's fears by trumpeting what might happen if vital systems went down. In response, the public rushed stores, stockpiling water and supplies in preparation for a doomsday scenario that never happened.

Sometimes the media – newspapers, tabloids, magazines, shows on TV, etc. – reports extensively on a particularly sensational story, making it seem more important than it would otherwise be. This can make the object of fear in the story seem more threatening. In July 2001, a shark off the coast of Florida bit off a child's arm. That summer, the media treated shark bites and sightings as major news stories. It became known as "The Summer of the Shark." As it turned out, there was nothing unusual about the number of shark attacks that occurred that summer.