August 07, 2009

Moral Panic and the Media

"Surely if the human race is under threat, it is entirely reasonable to segregate AIDS victims, otherwise the whole of mankind could be engulfed." (The Daily Star, 2 December 1988)

Throughout history, the mass media has been utilised as a tool to appeal to the man and woman in the street. It has been used avidly in the field of politics, where people in a position of power can tempt society into believing what they want them to believe. The media, wittingly or unwittingly, reproduce the definitions of the powerful.

Political elites (which are not necessarily our elected representatives) create moral panics to reinforce their own agendas and to legitimize the punishment of individuals or groups. Mass media is a powerful tool. It will take a story, mould it and stylise it, amplifying the facts and sometimes even distorting them.

Essentially the mass media thrives on sensation and exaggeration to boost their sales. The choice of vocabulary they incorporate and the types of photographs they show have a certain bias to them because they want society to perceive these events in a certain way. For example, at the start of the war in Iraq, the BBC website showed a picture of George Bush looking like everyone’s favourite uncle. On the same day, Al Jazeera had a photo of him looking like the devil incarnate. Same man, different angle.

Although our press claim to reinforce public opinion it is worth asking whether they are a voice for the people or a propaganda tool for the rich and powerful. The panics they create do not often better our lives, but they definitely increase sales.

The sad truth about the information we receive from our favourite daily paper, news channel and magazine, is that more often than not there is a hidden agenda, a bias which ultimately prevents us from understanding the essence of the truth of the situation.

Moral Panic starts with concern that the behaviour of a group is likely to have a negative impact on society. Then it moves on to hostility – a clear division is formed between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Scapegoats are sought and found. So called experts are brought in and paraded as opinion-makers. A consensus is reached, often fanned by rising feelings as the media forms our judgements for us and demands action. Often the action taken is wildly disproportionate to the presumed threat. For example the witch hunts of Renaissance Europe, the McCarthyist public interrogations in the US during the 1950’s, and the way in which the case for war was crafted after 9/11 and the ensuing invention of justifications, all bear the imprint of moral panic.

The media's involvement in all this must not be underestimated.
In the case of the Iraq war the media was instrumental in constructing and exacerbating the case for war. The dominant media issued polls which showed that people would support action of some type, and the appearance of consensus was paraded. At no time was there a point when all the people had the opportunity to definitively answer Yes or No to the question of war. In the UK a million people marched on London to say NO to war, but the popular media did not fight the battle of the people – it had other masters.

What we need is a responsible media which helps us to further the debates and arguments we have about our problems. We would then have more chance of solving them.

‘In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.’ Oscar Wilde

The only ones who can campaign for the basic right of a responsible media are we the people. We have a vested interest in knowing the truth because it is our taxes and our lives which are on the line. Until the day we can trust our media, we would be wise to protect our minds from the media we have. If you must have prejudices, at least make sure that they are your own, and not planted in your mind by the popular press.

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