Submission date: 11/04/11
Module:SC4001 Discovering Sociology
Task: (E) 2,000 word essay,
500 word self-evaluation of learning
Assignment: To what extent do the media distort reality? In your answer explore this in relation to the concept of moral panic.
“Mass Media reflect and stimulate current social attitudes, values, and beliefs found in society.” (Claussen 2002, pg. 266) The British media industry includes broadcasting via websites, radio, email, telephone, newspapers, magazines and all other forms of publicizing current news to the general public.
Overtime the British mass media has grown significantly. The media as a whole are there to update the local community on current affairs; although the mass media may choose to distort a lot of stories. Some believe this is because overly dramatic stories sell better and others because the public prefer to read about ‘exciting’ stories. In the eyes of many news reporters facts about peace and financial discussions are deemed less interesting to the reader.
Media in relation to reality
The media has a huge effect on changing reality and making us believe what they want us to and in ‘the production and consumption of environmental meanings in the mass media’ Jacquelin Burgees states that “the media are an integral part of a complex cultural process through which environmental meanings are produced and consumed” (28th November, 1989 pg.
139). The media tends to stereotype characters and ideas into categories and usually amplifies concepts and thoughts of particular characteristics in a destructive way. This is shown via many news stories that are usually exaggerated and the actual truth of the story tends to be lost.
Graeme Burton states that we are hugely influenced by advertisement in the media and that our consumerism culture means that we believe what we read and that advertisements really do have an effect on the reader.
The media has a habit of taking stories around subjects for example GM foods or immigration and although these are things that pose threats to society, the media exaggerate them to such a huge extent that they create a huge moral panic. This distorts the public’s opinion on what is actually reality and what isn’t. The truth is lost as the mass media’s version of the story dominates.
Moral panic itself is defined as a problem about a specific social group which is made up by the media and that particular group is deemed to be a hazard to society. Moral panic and folk devil were first introduced by Stanley Cohen in 1972 who was a professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. Although the mass media can be used in a positive way to promote success stories, most of the time it is used in a negative way and creates a moral panic amongst society.
Youths tend to be targeted in relation to moral panic as one or two groups of people can give a whole youth society a bad name. When it comes to ‘blame’ in society youths are an easy target for the media especially as it is much harder for them to voice their opinions. Youth sub culture is a way of labelling youths in society and the youth sub culture and its activities don’t always necessarily fit to the norms of society. Youths that spray graffiti onto blank walls see it as art and a pleasure to the eye, however it is seen as destruction and yob like behaviour in the eyes of the general public due to headlines via the media creating a moral panic around youth sub culture. The ‘out of control’ behaviour as the media would describe it means that something must be done about all these youths, where as in reality in the eyes of that generation they have done little wrong. This is a key example of moral panic and it is shown predominantly in the case of mods and rockers and hippies and skinheads.
Media in relation to reality and moral panic
The media create genuine stories and by exaggerating them and manufacturing a concern over a particular group of people they hold the power to distort reality and change people’s opinions. This was shown distinctly in the 1964 conflict between mods and rockers and later on in society via hippies and skinheads. These are both examples of two conflicting teenage youths who dressed differently and acted in different ways but both of whom the mass media created a huge moral panic over. The media coverage on the stories was always showing two sides the mods and the rockers as separate ‘gangs’ and comparing and contrasting their differences. This accelerated the crime amongst the two youth groups as the mass media created such a huge moral panic that is encouraged them on to fit to the stereotype the mass media had
In 1964 a seaside riot amongst Mods and Rockers was reported to have 51 arrests with over 1,000 teenagers involved. The huge riot caused great uproar in Brighton and was later carried on in Bournemouth and Clacton. Although the rivalry between mods and rockers already existed it was the media that interfered with the reality of the differences between the two groups and exaggerated them to an extent where the mods and rockers felt they needed to conform to their moral panic ‘statuses’.
This shows us the movement of moral panic by means of the media. As stated in understanding youth and crime by Sheila Brown (1995) the youth moral panic changed from moral panic into total panic. Youth crime and justice has been changed over time due to the mass media distorting or over amplifying stories in a negative way. “Moral panic implied a periodic tendency towards the identification and scapegoating of ‘folk devils’ whose activities were regarded by hegemonic groups as indicative of imminent social breakdown”. (John Springhall, 1998, pg 5)
The mass media holds such a strong power over reality that is has the power to group and name people into categories. The dramatized street attacks were labelled as a ‘garrotte attack’ and even though this was the mass medias way of describing simple street theft, the nicknaming of the crime as ‘garrotting’ and categorizing the thieves as ‘garrotters’ meant that they were technically calling them stranglers. So, although the street thieves were involved in violence, all of them were associated with a word meaning strangling and penalised with harsh penalties for their crimes due to the mass medias perception of moral panics.
The youth of today are trained to listen to and believe everything the media says as the news is deemed to be a genuine source of up to date information. In the article ‘Scaring Witless – How the media Distorts Reality’ by Chuck Colson he discusses how when children in America are asked how many kids are kidnapped each year they would guess around a thousand or hundreds whereas the truth of the matter is the answer is about 93 (for 1999). The reasoning
behind this is that because the cases are so rear every time that there is a story it becomes a huge case in the news and the story is broadcasted amongst many different types of media ensuring that everyone is aware of the case.
This happened in the UK in May 2007 when Madeleine McCann a three year old girl from England was kidnapped in Praia da Luz on their family holiday. This story caused huge uproar for months due to the media and people are still talking about it to this day. This is a clear example of the Medias distortion of the actual reality of this case.
The truth behind the story is so hard to entail because every type of newspaper or broadcasting news had a different version and a different theory into the kidnapping of Madeleine McCann. Some media coverage was criticism of the parents for leaving their child; others critiqued the police for taking to so long with forensic evidence and the huge story around Madeleine meant that the general public all generated different ideas on the kidnapping depending in which news related article they believed. In this case the media hugely distorted the actual reality of this story and the truth over the kidnapping of Madeleine McCann is still to be discovered.
It’s not just today’s modern society that the media distorts reality in. Although the power of the television was less predominate than it is in the current climate the media has had an effect on the general public even before the war. The different being that modern news travels a lot faster and has the ability to have many different versions of the same story due to the various different types of media that are now available as opposed to earlier on. “Rather than aiding our understanding of what war is really like, television arguably diminishes its reality. As American cultural critic, Michael Arlen, observed of US networks’ coverage of Vietnam, television made events less ‘real’ – diminished, in part, by the physical size of the television screen, which, for all the industry’s advances, still shows a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall” (cited by Hallin 1989, 103) (Susan L.Carruthers, 2000).
The theory on small changes in the truth by the media is called deviance amplification . This is the theory that a small deviance in the truth spirals into something much more significant and was created by Leslie Wilkins. This is essentially the medias outlook on moral panic, in that they only change small details to interest the reader but the small change in the truth or tiny exaggeration works in the sense of ‘Chinese whispers’ and deviance amplification means that the truth tends to be lost or distorted.
Although some may say that the media is simply amplifying stories for the general public’s benefit to make them aware of the situations around them, I believe that the mass media use moral panics to their advantage and not only exaggerate stories but also change important information and distort the truth to make sales of their media and increase viewings. It is a rarity to ever hear good news via the media and most of the news displayed is negative.
Where moral panics are concerned a lot of situations could be forgotten about or even not a big deal if the mass media weren’t involved in changing our views and opinions on the reality of things. Key examples with mods and rockers show how the mass media distorting reality and amplifying the actual happenings of the time and in my opinion their distortion of reality is purely for profit purposes only and not for the benefit of the general public.
Chuck Colson. (2004). Scaring Witless – How the media distorts reality. Available: http://www.angelfire.com/biz7/kim_allred/images/ScaringWitless.html. Last accessed 08th March 2011. Gordon Marshall. (1998). Deviance Amplification. Available: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-devianceamplification.html. Last accessed 02nd March 2011. Graeme Burton (2005). Media and Society: Critical Perspectives Jacquelin Burgees . (1990). The Production and Consumption of Environmental Meanings in the Mass Media: A Research Agenda for the 1990s. The Production and Consumption of Environmental Meanings in the Mass Media: A Research Agenda for the 1990s. 15 (2), pg 139-161. Joe Hayden and Lurene Kelley. (2009). TV news dealing overdose of violence. Available: http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/2009/jun/10/tv-news-dealing-overdose-of.
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