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This is a case study of newswork in a moral panic. Specifically, Stanley Cohen's concept of "moral panic" is used to examine the practices of a group of reporters who covered a widely publicized case of alleged child sexual abuse in a day-care center. Moral panics occur when a perceived threat to the social order emerges with such force, and with such little overt warning, that routine discourse about right and wrong gives way to a flood of indignation about an extraordinary breach of normal moral boundaries. Suspending normal rules governing social control, officials rush to crack down on the newly discovered menace. This study examined the role played by newsworkers in the social construction of a moral panic.
For over three years, the case of alleged abuse was covered by three newspapers and several television and radio stations. Friends and family fiercely proclaimed the innocence of the defendants. Supporters of the alleged victims insisted that the children were telling the truth. In the middle of this maelstrom were the reporters, whose news accounts were closely scrutinized by all the parties to the case.
The case study revealed that the reporters–working in an intensely competitive environment–effectively allowed the prosecution to define the case against the defendants and, more generally, to define child sexual abuse as a fundamental threat to social order. Specifically, the case study revealed the special role played by anonymous sources during moral panics. Anonymity provided official sources with an opportunity to favor sympathetic reporters, ignore others, and strategically release information likely to support the prosecution.
Further, the case study revealed the central role of language in the social construction of a moral panic. Highly charged words and symbols became the linguistic representations of the evil that was threatening the community. And the choices made by the newsworkers as to how they would describe the alleged acts, often the result of substantial internal conflict within the newsgathering organizations, were a fundamental means by which the deviant threat was constructed.
Finally, the case study revealed that, while the reporters were expected to maintain at least an appearance of emotional distance, they faced the same challenge as everyone else in a community seized by moral panic: Confronting a relatively "new" threat, they needed to understand the threat and cope with their own feelings of anger and revulsion. While they struggled to maintain at least a veneer of objectivity, these powerful emotions–felt most intensely when they heard the children testify–often led them to construct news accounts suggesting that the children were telling the truth.
Gorelick, Steven M., "Child Sexual Abuse, Moral Panic, and the Mass Media: A Case Study in the Social Construction of Deviance" (1995). CUNY Academic Works.