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Moral Panic


The rapid urbanization of towns and communities in the last few centuries has resulted in the increasing isolation of people from each other. According to Young (2011), ‘extreme class segregation, restricted knowledge and limited media sources’ (p. 249) have accompanied the shift, but the emergence of mass media remedied this by bridging the knowledge gap. The downside, however, is that mass media is also the harbinger of distorted information. Brown (2011) said that this caused the disappearance of the ‘real’ rendering the world unreal. As a result, mass media often engenders moral panic or a state in which a general feeling of alarm permeate society driven by the exaggerated and distorted presentation of the truth.

The Henry Kwan Incident: Four Articles

In June this year, a year 12 student in Sydney, Henry Kwan, jumped to his death from the third floor of his family home after purportedly ingesting a type of synthetic drugs. The reaction was immediate: several types of synthetic drugs were temporarily banned. Not surprisingly, the incident hogged the headlines of many newspapers, some calmly others on the brink of hysteria. Four of these news articles are discussed below.

  1. ‘Synthetic drug ban goes federal after teen’s death’ by the Sunshine Coast Daily

This brief article encourages moral panic because it ‘propagates stereotypical image of deviance’ (Young 2010, p. 249). By implying that all synthetic drugs are mind-altering, it creates a stereotypical image of synthetic drugs as a means of deviance. The inclusion of the interview with tough-talking Federal Minister Bradbury illustrates gonzo journalism — a style of media reporting that feeds on the spectacular and ‘out-of-control crime problem that must be combated by swift, certain, and hyper-punitive public responses’ (Maratea and Monahan 2013, pp. 2-3).

The moral panic reproduced deviance because of its exaggerated claim and repressed a secret fascination, which is often the case with drugs. This distorted and irrational representation of drugs is similar to the ice age’ propagated by the UK media since 2004 in reference to the synthetic drug crystal meth, yet, facts and statistics show that the UK is not being besieged to date by the meth problem (Ayres and Jewkes 2012).

  1. ‘Family of Henry Kwan want answers on synthetic drugs death’ by The Telegraph

The Telegraph article, which is comparatively calmer, made it appear that the death of Kwan was directly linked to the taking of the drug and not the act of jumping off from the third floor of the house, thus, making it guilty of propagating a stereotypical image of deviance (Young 2011).

This distortion of the cause-effect relationship illustrated Young’s resistance factor. Mass media, particularly news media, is notorious in pinning labels and interpreting events from their own perspective. Brown (2011) called them ‘purveyors of demonization, responsibilization, riskiness (and risk aversion), surveillance and exceptionalism’ (Brown 2011, p. 416).

  1. ‘Teen jumps to his death after $1.50 drug hit’ by the Sydney Morning Herald

This article is evidently engaged in serious moral panic borne by the terrifying vision evoked by its headline: cheap drugs rampantly available in the streets of Sydney causing death of young kids. The opening statement ‘Sydney high school students are selling a cheap and dangerous synthetic drug to classmates’ exacerbates and ‘creates rising spirals of alarm’ (Young 2011, p. 249). This kind of excessive reporting is reflective of the Maxine Carr case where media so demonised an accused that she remained in fear of her life even after she was acquitted forcing the Court to grant her an indefinite anonymity (Jones and Wardle 2010).

The moral panic evoked by the article tends to reproduce deviance because of its disproportionate reaction to the incident painting drug-infested Sydney high school campuses. In addition, the article attributed China as the originator of these drugs without proof. Young (2011) cited resistance to emerging trends as one characteristic of moral panic and in this case China, an emerging Asian economic powerhouse, is the target. This trial by publicity type of reporting is similar to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, where the media employed ‘attack journalism’ against the parents peaking in ‘Parents Murdered Daughter’ headlines. Forced to defend their honour, the parents sued and succeeded in eliciting front-page apologies (Greer and McLaughlin 2012).

  1. ‘Teen’s death sparks call to ban synthetic drugs’ by ABC News

The fourth article encourages moral panic by frequently mentioning the word ‘LSD,’ creating a stereotypical image of deviance through association. This is illustrative of the media template cited by Kitzinger (2000), which he attributed as a source of media power. Thus, instead of conducting actual research on the present, media often takes a past high-profile event to explain the present resulting in the simplification and distortion of present events (Kitzinger 2000).

The moral panic encouraged by this article illustrates the implicit urge to repress an object of one’s fascination (Young 2011), which in this case is the use of the prohibited drug LSD.

Conclusion: Effect of Media Response on the Public

The moral panic engendered in the Kwan case immediately moved the government to provisionally ban synthetic drugs and to seriously consider making it permanent. The power of the media to influence public perception is acknowledged by cultural criminology, which references the ‘increasing analytic attention that many criminologists now give to popular culture constructions, and especially mass media constructions, of crime and crime control’ (Yar 2010, p. 68). For example, a television show called Oz justifies discriminatory practices in prisons by presenting terrifying criminal activities – a form of moral panic (Yousman 2009).

Nonetheless, this power can be wielded to evoke positive changes and benefit society. This was shown by Kort-Butler (2012) who cited that children’s cartoons serve as introductory guide to the perception of justice, which is consistent with society’s moral values. Moreover, Nicholls (2013), observed that television is able to easily tackle sensitive issues that would not have been possible in other forms of media (Nicholls (2013). One happy development is that there are factions rising against the moral panic-inducing style of reporting. An advertising trend called advertising graffiti is now being employed by corporate giants such as IBM. This type of advertising “enacts the essence of transgression” (Alvelos p. 190) by using rudimentary graffiti as advertisement medium without the gloss often attributed to advertisements.


ABC News 2013, ‘Teen’s death sparks call to ban synthetic drugs,’, 7 June, viewed 30 August 2013, ABC News archive database.

Alvelos, H 2002, ‘The desert of imagination in the city of signs: cultural implications of sponsored transgression and branded graffiti’, Cultural Criminology Unleashed, vol. 1, no. 5, pp. 181-1191.

Ayres, T and Jewkes, Y 2012, ‘The haunting spectacle of crystal meth: A media-created mythology?’ Crime Media Culture, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 315-332.

Brown, S 2011, ‘Media ⁄ Crime ⁄Millennium: Where are we now? A reflective review of research and theory directions in the 21st century’, Sociology Compass vol. 5, no. 6, pp. 413–425.

Cavender, G and Deutsch, S 2007, ‘CSI and moral authority: The police and science’, Crime Media Culture, vol. 3, no.1, pp. 67-81.

Cuneo, C 2013, ‘Family of Henry Kwan want answers on synthetic drugs death’, The Telegraph, 10 June, viewed 28 August 2913, The Herald archive database.

Greer, C and McLaughlin, E 2012, ‘Media justice: Madeleine McCann, intermediatization and ‘trial by media’ in the British press’, Theoretical Criminology, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 395-416.

Grewal, J 2013, ‘Synthetic drug ban goes federal after teen’s death,’ Sunshine Coast Daily, 16 June, viewed 28 August 2013, Sunshine Coast daily archive database.

Jones, P and Wardle, C 2010, ‘Hindley’s ghost: The visual construction of Maxine Carr’, in K Hayward, and M Presdee, M (eds.), Framing crime: Cultural criminology and the image, London; New York, Routledge, pp. 53-63.

Kitzinger, J 2000, ‘Media templates: patterns of association and the (re)construction of meaning over time’, Media Culture Society, vol. 22, pp. 61-84.

Kort-Butler, L 2013, ‘Justice league?: Depictions of justice in children’s superhero cartoons’, Criminal Justice Review, vol. 38, no.1, pp. 50-69.

Maratea, R J and Monahan, B 2013, ‘Crime control as mediated spectacle: the institutionalization of gonzo rhetoric in modern media and politics’, Symbolic Interaction, pp. 1-14.

Nicholls, N 2011, ‘East West 101 as edgy text: Television police drama and Australian multiculturalism’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 573-582.

Philadelphoff-Puren, N 2005, ‘Contextualising consent: the problem of rape and romance’, Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 20, no. 46, pp. 31-42.

Ralston, N and Davies, L 2013, ‘Teen jumps to his death after $1.50 drug hit’, The Sydney Telegraph, 6 June, viewed 29 August 2013, The Sydney Telegraph archive database.

Yar, M 2010, ‘Screening crime, Cultural criminology goes to the movies’ in K Hayward, and M Presdee, M (eds.), Framing crime: Cultural criminology and the image, London; New York, Routledge, pp. 68-82.

Young, J 2011, ‘Moral panics and the transgressive other’, Crime Media Culture, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 245-258.

Yousman, B 2009, ‘Inside Oz: Hyperviolence, Race and Class Nightmares, and the Engrossing Spectacle of Terror’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 265- 284.

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