Media Culture: Moral Panics

In the opening statement of his defining work on moral panic in society, Stanley Cohen writes of various subjects that emerge “to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”, and are “presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media.” (Cohen, 1972, p. 1) The choice of words in this opening paragraph led me to consider my own history of interest in this type of media behaviour.

I remember a period, six or seven years ago, when a blog called Gamepolitics was always within my website rotation. This site in particular held my interest because of the author’s frequent communication with Jack Thompson, an attorney that had become notorious for his condemnation of violent computer games.

Jack Thompson

The case of Jack Thompson, and the mass media’s reception of his ideas, is a fascinating exhibition of the effects of media incentive to encourage moral panic.

It’s important to consider why computer games, and those that play them, are often portrayed as a threat. Krinsky observes the paradox that moral panic often justifies “disciplinary adult reactions” both to perceived threats to youth and “to the social dangers that young people and youth cultures are themselves thought to pose.” (Krinsky, 2008, p. 1)

In other words, youth culture is often both the victim and the aggressor. The demonisation of forms of media popular among youth is something of a historical pattern. Bagehot, in writing for the Economist (2011), makes reference to this, quoting a 1913 Times editorial piece on the subject of silent film: “All who care for the moral well-being and education of the child will set their faces like flint against this new form of excitement”.

With this history in mind, I reviewed Thompson’s appearances in the media immediately after the infamous school shooting at Virginia Tech.

In the wake of this tragedy, Thompson was able to broadcast his theories about what was to blame – “murder simulation games” as he refers to them – before any facts about the killer were known.

This may be seen as one man pushing his agenda, but the reception he receives from his hosts is telling. Fox News and MSNBC both accompany his name with titles like “School Shootings expert”. MSNBC’s David Gregory concludes his interview with the words, “Thanks very much for your expertise and your insight this morning”.

As the governor’s final report states, the killer’s roommate “never saw him play video games”. He played games in his youth, but none of them “were war games or had violent themes” (Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007). Thompson’s assumptions were completely misplaced, yet he had been given a sympathetic ear.

Virginia Tech Campus
Virginia Tech Campus

The following statement from a study of school shootings provides a bleak but probable incentive for the behaviour of the mass media in this case:

“Politicians are dependent on the press to report on their initiatives and to gain support and legitimacy in the same way as the press is dependent on politics for its continuous production of copy. Due to their sequential character (in contrast to single events, such as school shootings) political processes and the fabrication of news both gain from their mutual dependency.” (Sørensen, 2012)

In other words, the news assists those with political agendas in provoking moral panic because it generates news. In that context, Jack Thompson’s reception following the V-Tech shooting is tragically unsurprising.

-Jesse (@Backblogguy)


Bagehot, 2011. Civil disorder and looting hits Britain: We have been here before. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 8 March 2015].

Cohen, S., 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics. London: Granada Publishing.

GamePolitics, 2015. Home. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 12 May 2015].

Krinsky, C., 2008. Moral Panics over Contemporary Children and Youth. London: Ashgate.

Pearson, G., 1983. Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears. Basingstoke: Macmillan Publishers.

Sørensen, E., 2012. Violent computer games in the German press. New Media & Society, 15(6), pp. 963-981.

Virginia Tech Review Panel, 2007. Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 12 May 2015].

YouTube, 2007. Jack Thompson speaks regarding Virginia Tech shootings. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 12 May 2015].

YouTube, 2007. Jack Thompson continues his “crusade” after VT shooting. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 12 May 2015].


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s