On the concept of moral panic
DAVID GARLAND, New York University, USA
The article develops a critical analysis of the concept of moral panic and its sociological
uses. Arguing that some of the concept’s subtlety and power has been lost as the term
has become popular, the article foregrounds its Freudian and Durkheimian aspects
and explicates the epistemological and ethical issues involved in its use. Contrasting
the dynamics of moral panics to the dynamics of culture wars, the author shows that
both phenomena involve group relations and status competition, though each displays
a characteristically different structure. The piece concludes by situating ‘moral panics’
within a larger typology of concepts utilized in the sociology of social reaction.
ethics of attribution; moral panic; social reaction; sociology of moral reaction; theory
The concept of ‘moral panic’ has had an enormous impact, not just on sociology –
where it has spawned a small sub-discipline of moral panic studies – but also on the
language of cultural debate and on the practice of journalists and politicians. The claim
that a social reaction is, in fact, merely a moral panic, has become a familiar move in any
public conversation about social problems or societal risks. In an age of exaggeration,
where the mass media regularly converge on a single anxiety-creating issue and exploit
it for all it’s worth, the utility of a negating, deflationary riposte is perfectly apparent.
No wonder, then, that the term has become part of the standard repertoire of public
debate. It was Stanley Cohen’s classic study (Cohen, 1972) that provided our mass
mediated world with this essential argumentative device, this way of saying ‘no’ to the
forces of hyperbole and hysteria; but if Cohen hadn’t introduced the term in 1972, it
would have been necessary for someone else to invent it.
Before it was a rhetorical move in cultural politics, ‘moral panic’ was a rigorously defined sociological concept, first developed in an empirically grounded but relentlessly
theoretical work entitled Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Cohen, 1972) (one title, two
CRIME MEDIA CULTURE © 2008 SAGE Publications, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore
www.sagepublications.com, ISSN 1741-6590, Vol 4(1): 9–30 [DOI: 10.1177/1741659007087270]
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valuable new concepts – more than many of us manage in a whole book) and it is that
sociological usage upon which I will focus here. After a brief description of the range
of phenomena to which it refers, I will proceed to make some observations about the
concept and its applications.
MORAL PANICS: THE PHENOMENON
So what exactly are moral panics? What do they involve, what brings them about, and
what do they cause to happen? Cohen’s book, first published in 1972 (with a third
edition appearing 30 years later), provides the following introduction to the term:
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic.
A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as
a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and
stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by
editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited
experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or
(more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates
and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at
other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly
appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except
in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting
repercussions and might produce such changes . . . in legal and social policy or even
in the way the society conceives itself. (Cohen, 2004: 1)
Cohen doesn’t say exactly what he means by ‘panic’ here, but he clearly has in mind
the conventional usage, defined by the OED as follows: ‘A sudden and excessive feeling
of alarm or fear, usually affecting a body of persons, and leading to extravagant or injudicious efforts to secure safety’.
The qualities of disproportion, exaggeration and alarm are also emphasized in the
definition provided by that other classic of moral panic analysis, Policing the Crisis, but
here the stress is the consensual quality of the overblown social reaction, even if that
consensus is somewhat strained and artificial:
When the official reaction to a person, groups of person or series of events is out
of all proportion to the actual threat offered, when ‘experts’, in the form of police
chiefs, the judiciary, politicians and editors perceive the threat in all but identical
terms, and appear to talk ‘with one voice’ of rates, diagnoses, prognoses and solutions, when the media representations universally stress ‘sudden and dramatic’ increases (in numbers involved or events) and ‘novelty’ above and beyond that which
a sober, realistic appraisal could sustain, then we believe it is appropriate to speak of
. . . a moral panic. (Hall et al., 1978: 16, emphasis in original)
How do we know one of these moral panics when we see one? The standard text
on moral panics (Goode and Ben Yehuda, 1994) identifies five key features of the
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
phenomenon: (i) concern (some reported conduct or event sparks anxiety); (ii) hostility (the perpetrators are portrayed as folk devils); (iii) consensus (the negative social
reaction is broad and unified); (iv) disproportionality (the extent of the conduct, or the
threat it poses, are exaggerated); (v) volatility (the media’s reporting and the associated
panic emerge suddenly, but can dissipate quickly too).
This is a useful summary, and one that has been influential in subsequent studies,
but I believe it omits two elements that are essential to the meaning of the concept
that Cohen developed: (i) the moral dimension of the social reaction, particularly the
introspective soul-searching that accompanies these episodes; and (ii) the idea that
the deviant conduct in question is somehow symptomatic. As Cohen emphasizes in
his original case study, the reactions of ‘society’s guardians’ always reach beyond the
immediate problem, linking it to other disturbing symptoms of malaise. ‘It’s not just
this . . .’ they say, before presenting claims about associated problems and wider implications. Together, these two elements – a moral dimension, a symptomatic quality –
are important, because they point to the true nature of the underlying disturbance;
namely, the anxious concern on the part of certain social actors that an established
value system is being threatened. This fear that a cherished way of life is in jeopardy is
central to Cohen’s account of moral panics, their nature and their genesis. At bottom,
the sociology of moral panics discovers the displaced politics of group relations and
Here is a story from The New York Times in February 2007 (Cowell, 2007) which has
all the hallmarks of a moral panic report, and which shows these characteristics quite
clearly. It also shows the extent to which politicians have learned to recognize moral
panic processes and struggle to manage their fall-out. The story was printed below
the following headline: ‘Latest Death of Teenager in South London Unsettles Britain’:
London, Feb 16 – With an outpouring of soul-searching and public sorrow, British
leaders expressed dismay on Friday at a recent spate of gun crime that has claimed
five lives, and particularly at the young men in their mid-teens who were shot to
death in their homes.
But while some politicians depicted the bloodshed as a sign of deep social malaise,
Prime Minister Tony Blair resisted suggestions that the killings reflected a broader
crisis among Britain’s young people.
The issue has become more urgent this week since a United Nations report, widely
reported here, depicted British young people as worse off socially than many of their
peers in the world’s richest countries.
Acknowledging that the shootings were horrific, Prime Minister Blair insisted that
people ought not to overreact:
Let us be careful in our response. This tragedy is not a metaphor for the state of
British society, still less of the state of British youth.
The report went on to say that ‘the killings have stunned many Britons’ and
sparked worries about the prevalence of firearms, about crack cocaine, and about
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American-style turf wars between drug-dealing gang members. The most recent
victim’s father is quoted as saying, ‘The way they got hold of guns now is unbelievable’.
But the alarm that was sounded in the wake of these events went beyond the immediate facts of the murders: ‘It has inspired an anguished debate about whether
some parts of British society are sliding out of control – an impression Mr. Blair sought
Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Opposition spokesman Alan Duncan, on the other
hand, had no such inhibitions. In a press release reported in the Daily Telegraph the following day, Mr Duncan declared that Britain needs to be ‘recivilized’ and provided the
following diagnosis of the social crisis that lies behind the shootings:
Within the EU, Britain is the fattest nation, with the most apathetic voters, the worst
energy wasters, the biggest porn addicts, the most violent people and the greatest
As if that indictment were insufficient, he went on – with a Chinese encyclopedia listing
worthy of Jorge Luis Borges – to say,
We have the worst kids’ allergies, are the biggest binge drinkers, are the most
burgled, have the most asthma sufferers, are the worst linguists, have the most premature babies and have the fewest organ donors . . . There has been a collapse of
In his introduction to the third edition of his book, Stan Cohen (2004: xxx) notes that
‘successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with
wider anxieties’. Clearly Mr Duncan was doing his level best to make the connections.
The Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, was more circumspect, but he too
characterized the events as symptomatic, pointing to ‘absent fathers’ and ‘family
breakdown’ as being ‘at the heart’ of the problem (Cowell, 2007). In this, he appeared
to have captured the public mood, as indicated by a Guardian/ICM poll (reported
in the Glover and Travis, 2007) which found that 80 per cent of voters agreed with
the statement that family breakdown and lack of discipline in the home are partly
responsible for the growth of a gun culture.
The New York Times (Cowell, 2007) article went on to note that, despite the surge in
media reports and public anxiety, police figures indicate that murders and gun crime
are decreasing.1 Nevertheless, Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, called for new police
powers and mandatory sentences of imprisonment for young people carrying guns.
The targets of these new powers – the folk devils at the centre of the reaction – are
of course violent, drug-dealing, inner-city, black youth, all too familiar to readers of
Policing the Crisis (Hall et al., 1978).
All in all, this episode of outcry, soul-searching, and social reaction – with a troubling
form of youth deviance at its centre – describes a classic moral panic. More knowing
and self-reflexive than the one described by Stan Cohen from 40 years ago, perhaps,
and more politically contested too, but otherwise an exemplary instance of the genre.
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
Types of moral panic
The English gun crime episode just described is a ‘classic’ moral panic because it
contains each of the defining elements identified by Cohen when he first analyzed the
phenomenon. But subsequent research has shown that moral panics come in a variety
of shapes and sizes, as do the forms of deviance to which they purportedly respond,
and their subsequent effects on the social world. It is perhaps worth pausing to say
something about these variations of form and focus.
Moral panics vary in intensity, duration and social impact. Some are minor, transient
episodes, leaving little trace behind them: who, other than the participants, now remembers the alarm prompted in 1950s Britain by the Teddy Boys (Pearson, 1983)?
Others are major, fateful developments which transform masses of lives and whole
social landscapes: the European witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries (TrevorRoper, 1967) or anxieties about ‘national decline’ in 19th-century Britain (Stedman
Jones, 1971) would be cases in point. They can be isolated outbreaks, such as the
short-lived panic about freeway shootings in late-1980s Los Angeles (Best, 1999),
or form part of a series, each episode building on the other. Drug panics (Reinarman
and Levine, 1997) and child abuse outcries (Hacking, 2000) have had this cumulative
quality, a ‘spiral of signification’ (Hall et al., 1978) adding to the perceived significance
of each new twist in the continuing narrative of concern.
The problems to which moral panics respond may turn out to be serious, trivial, or a
figment of the imagination – although the revealed extent of the problem usually bears
little relation to the reaction it produces. Mods and Rockers now appear innocuous.
Street robbery or firearm murders much less so. The satanic ritual child abuse panic that
struck Britain in the early 1990s seems, like the early modern witch hunts, to have been
entirely delusional, but it was altogether real in its effects and there are people still in
prison as a result (Showalter, 1998; Hacking, 2000).
The phrase ‘revealed extent’ in the previous paragraph glosses too quickly over an
epistemological problem that always affects the world of social problems and their perception. Strictly speaking, the ‘extent’ of a problem is never simply ‘revealed’. Like the
problem’s character, or causes, or consequences, it is a property that is subject to dispute
and collective negotiation. In some cases, these issues remain forever contentious. In
other cases, the nature and extent of the phenomena are subject to broad agreement,
based on widely shared interpretations and more or less solid evidence.
Moral panics also vary in terms of proximate causation and patterns of development. They can be spontaneous, grass-roots events, unselfconsciously driven by local
actors and anxieties – as the panic over Mods and Rockers at Clacton seems to have
been – or can be deliberately engineered for commercial or political gain. Angela
McRobbie and Sarah Thornton (1995) describe how Acid House record producers did
their utmost to provoke a moral panic about the use of Ecstasy at raves in a bid to
create media attention and free publicity for their product. The strategy of shocking an
older generation to generate publicity and court a younger, hipper audience appears
throughout the history of modern rock music, from Bill Haley and Elvis Presley to the
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Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols and Marilyn Manson. And if commercially contrived
moral panics are innocuous, their political analogues – such as Hitler’s burning of the
Reichstag in the 1930s or the Zinoviev letter of the 1920s – have altogether more
The social reaction involved in a moral panic can be more or less consensual, more
or less divided. In Cohen’s original case study, ‘society’s guardians’ responded to the
seaside disturbances with one voice. In my English gun violence example, the politicians
and commentators are much more divided in their reaction and in the interpretive
frames they seek to impose on the events. (I will suggest, in a moment, that consensual,
uncontested social reactions appear decreasingly common in contemporary society.)
As for causation, this may also vary with the nature and focus of the moral panic,
but the research literature returns repeatedly to a loose set of causal conditions that
are associated with the phenomenon. Facilitating conditions include (i) the existence
of a sensationalist mass media (although historians identify moral panic episodes
in the mid-19th century and before: see Davis, 1980; Pearson, 1983; Adler, 1996 –
perhaps an effective channel of collective communication is all that is needed); (ii) the
discovery of some new or hitherto unreported form of deviance; (iii) the existence of
marginalized, outsider groups suitable for portrayal as ‘folk devils’; and (iv) an already
primed, sensitized public audience. As for precipitating causes, the literature suggests
that these have to do with transitions in the social, economic or moral order of the
society. Threats to existing hierarchies; status competition; the impact of social change
upon established ways of life; and the breakdown of previously existing structures of
control – these are the deep sources of surface panics most often identified. Erikson
(1966) on witch hunts in Puritan New England; Hall et al. (1978) on mugging panics in
1970s England; Williamson (1985) on southern lynching in 1890s America; or Garland
(2001) on late 20th-century crime complexes in Britain and America, all supply illustrative examples.
Folk devils and their relation to moral panics
Cohen’s original analysis made it clear that moral panics and their folk devils have an
interactive relationship – typically one of deviance amplification that occurs because
media attention and increased social control prompt a hardening of the original
deviance, or even an enhancement of its attraction for potential deviants. Hacking
(2000) has described this as a ‘looping effect’ whereby social reaction interacts with
the thing responded to, bringing about the transformation of the latter. This shaping
effect of social reaction – the process of ‘making and moulding’ as Hacking describes
it – is subject to empirical variation and by no means always results in ‘amplification’, as
Cohen (2004) concedes in the introduction to the third edition of his book. Depending
on context, balance of forces, interaction dynamics, and the ongoing choices of participants, the emergence of a moral panic can cause the deviance in question to be halted,
amplified or altogether transformed. (Consider, for example, the organizing, mobilizing
and politicizing effects that moral panic reactions have sometimes had on groups such
as welfare claimants, single mothers, illegal immigrants, HIV sufferers, gay men, etc.)
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
What Cohen did not emphasize, although I believe it is implicit in his original analysis
and rather more explicit in Hall et al.’s Policing the Crisis (1978), is that a specific group
of deviants is singled out for ‘folk devil’ status, in large part, because it possesses characteristics that make it a suitable screen upon which society can project sentiments of
guilt and ambivalence. Detailed accounts of this process of denial and projection are
developed in Watney (1987) which discusses the societal reaction to AIDS in the early
1980s and Williamson (1985) which analyzes the emergence in the 1890s of the ‘black
beast rapist’ folk devil in the American South.
A vivid example of this unconscious denial and projection is the recurring contemporary panic centered upon pedophile sex offenders. As the 2007 film Little Children
(Field, 2007) suggests quite clearly, the intensity of current fear and loathing of child
abusers seems to be connected to unconscious guilt about negligent parenting and
widespread ambivalence about the sexualization of modern culture. Moral panic
targets are not randomly selected: they are cultural scapegoats whose deviant conduct appalls onlookers so powerfully precisely because it relates to personal fears and
unconscious wishes. In collective nightmares, as in individual dreams, the emergence
of a specific bête noire is over-determined by pre-existing conflicts. The achievement
of the best moral panic analyses is to render these involvements and anxieties conscious and intelligible and to show how they contributed to the outcry in question.
(The corresponding weakness of much moral panic analysis is, as Paul Rock (2007)
has observed, the failure to provide evidence that these background anxieties truly
exist and that they – rather than the deviant phenomenon being reacted to – actually
contributed to the emergence of the ‘moral panic’ in question.)
I have already noted the political uses of moral panics but one should also emphasize that the mass media are typically the prime movers and the prime beneficiaries of
these episodes, since the sensation they create – a kind of collective effervescence –
sells papers, entertains readers, and generates further news and commentary as the
story unfolds, the spokesmen take sides, and the deviant phenomenon develops.
Indeed, in an early discussion of the idea, Jock Young (1971) noted that the commercial
media have an ‘institutionalized need to create moral panics’. On this account, the
media ‘fan public indignation’ and ‘engineer’ moral panics in order to generate news
and appeal to the imagination and concerns of their readers.
The productivity of moral panics
Finally, one ought to mention the productivity of moral panics. These episodes make
things happen. They create effects and leave a legacy. Think about Hall’s account
(Hall et al., 1978; Hall, 1980) of how the panic about ‘mugging’ began the drift to a
law and order society, or how the American panic over drugs drove the build-up of
mass imprisonment (Garland, 2000). The recurring sex offender panics of the last 10
years have led to an intrusive apparatus of supervision, restraint, and confinement
which civil liberties concerns have done little to prevent. As the writers of Policing the
Crisis put it,
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The moral panic appears to us to be one of the principal forms of ideological consciousness by means of which a ‘silent minority’ is won over to the support of
increasingly coercive measures on the part of the state, and lends its legitimacy to a
‘more than usual’ exercise of control. (Hall et al., 1978: 221)
Moral panics often seem ephemeral but over time their cumulative effect can be to
create social divisions and redistribute social status as well as building infrastructures
of regulation and control that persist long after the initial episode has run its course.
Thus James Marone (2003) has argued that in the USA, where the ideology of limited
government usually obstructs the expansion of state institutions, moral panics have
repeatedly given rise to a form of reactive state-building that is of major importance.
Marone argues that the extraordinary ‘politics of sin’ in a religious ‘Hellfire’ nation –
prompted by outcries about the deleterious effects of alcohol, the sex trade, and drugs –
have led to a build-up of governmental regulation and nationwide enforcement that
could never have been achieved by means of normal political processes.
We need, however, to be careful here lest we attribute too much efficacy to
‘panics’ and too little to rational reactions to underlying problems – although it is
often empirically difficult to disentangle the two. Take, for instance, the phenomenon
of child abuse, which, as Ian Hacking has observed, is a social problem that has been
highlighted, conceptualized and addressed in recent decades. The cumulative social
and governmental reactions to perceived child abuse have created, in our societies, a
whole new regime of suspicion, supervision and control:
Child abuse has created a world of difference. Children are subjected to education
about it, by way of videos, from the earliest years of schooling. Television and movies
have a steady diet of it. There are support and confessional groups for abusers
modeled on the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous. Abuse has been firmly grasped
by the co-dependency movements. By 1985 there were cities – Portland, Oregon,
for example – in which anti-abuse activists had been so successful that men were
advised never to touch a child in public; if a child not in the family is hurt, be sure
there is a friendly witness there before helping in any way. (Hacking, 2000: 160)
It would be a mistake, however, to attribute this new regulatory regime exclusively
to ‘moral panics’. Unlike the fantasy of ‘satanic ritual abuse’ – which appears to have
been based entirely on unsubstantiated claims – more mundane practices involving
the ‘abuse’ of children (by neglect, mistreatment, mental, physical and sexual violence,
etc.) are all too real, and, having been rendered visible, would undoubtedly prompt condemnation and efforts at control with or without hysterical outcries and exaggerated
reporting. In such cases, the initial moral panic may serve to attract public attention
and force the problem onto the political agenda, but the revealed character of the
underlying phenomenon may be sufficient to explain subsequent social reactions.
Moral panics and cultural conflicts
Recent scholarship (for example, by McRobbie and Thornton, 1995) emphasizes the
relative scarcity today of consensual social reactions and the importance of oppositional
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
voices in the media and in the public domain. In the early 1960s, when the events described by Cohen took place, a relatively cohesive establishment and a narrowly focused
mass media could give the impression of a unified public reaction. In the decades since
then, the growth of publicly accessible media, together with the emergence of an
alternative youth press, the existence of counter-experts who contest alarmist claims,
and activists willing to speak out on behalf of targeted folk devils, make consensual
expressions of concern much more unusual.
These changes in the conditions and possibilities for public expression have implications for the nature of moral panics. They suggest a shift away from moral panics
as traditionally conceived (involving a vertical relation between society and a deviant
group) towards something more closely resembling American-style ‘culture wars’ (which
involve a more horizontal conflict between social groups). If this is the case, it suggests
that the UK may, in this respect, be growing closer to the USA, where it is difficult
to find any public issue on which there is broad public agreement and an absence of
dissenting voices. The pervasive appearance of racial, religious and regional divisions,
fostered by identity politics and given expression by public access media, ensures that
most social or moral issues prompt markedly polarized responses, even if the terms of
political and economic debate are quite narrowly drawn.
There are, no doubt, occasions where genuine moral panics occur in America (the
panic over child abuse is a good example) – where broadly shared societal values are
disturbed by a deviant group’s conduct. But this is much less common than moral crusades, symbolic politics and culture wars, where specific social groups engage in moral
politics in order to redistribute social status and declare one form of life superior to its
rivals. Sociologists like Joseph Gusfield (1986) and historians like James Marone (2003)
have described this phenomenon in detail (see also Garland, 2007).
If there has indeed been a shift from consensual moral panics to conflictual culture
wars then the meaning and value of the conduct in question will tend to be much
more contested, and the power balances between contending groups much less asymmetrical. Instead of becoming folk devils who are powerless in the face of public
outrage, and are forced to desist or else adopt the tainted identity imposed on them,
the targets of today’s moral campaigns will sometimes have the capacity to resist deviant identities and assert the social value and normality of their conduct. In moral conflicts of the latter type, the outrage expressed by one set of onlookers prompts not a
public panic but instead a defiant (and equally outraged) response from the ‘folk devils’
whose conduct was brought into question. Recent conflicts involving same-sex couples
and the question of gay marriage, or illegal immigrants and law reform, or Muslim
women and the wearing of the hijab in school, have sometimes begun as moral panics
and ended as politically contested culture wars – suggesting that these dynamics may
be affected by normative evolution and changes in the status of the deviant group as
well as by media proliferation and political fragmentation.
Finally, the recent scholarship (Thompson, 1998) has also emphasized the extent
to which the processes of moral panic have become familiar so that participants are
now much more self-conscious and deliberate than previously. The media’s handling
of moral panics has become somewhat routine and predictable. The rules of the game
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are well known. Players align themselves with escalation or de-escalation, depending
on their interests, while the media reflexively comments on its own practice, often
making a story of the story. Thus, in the example I quoted concerning gun violence
in London, David Cameron and Alan Duncan were pursuing a maximization strategy,
seeking to stoke the panic, to generalize the problem, and to shape the public outcry
to their own ends. At the same time, Tony Blair was urging calm, trying to ‘keep things
in perspective’, seeking to localize rather than generalize, hoping to downplay the
problem without being caught in the trap of being seen to be ‘out of touch’ with popular experience. Meanwhile, media commentators – such as Melanie Phillips (2007) in
the Daily Mail – commented on the commentators, talking about ‘the predictable signs
of panic’. In a different context, columnist Simon Jenkins (2007) satirized the media’s
standard panic process – which he labeled ‘mad publicity disease’ – ridiculing the
‘stoked hysteria’ and ‘hullabaloo’, and urging public skepticism in the face of alarming
reports and pontificating experts. The tendency of a self-involved media to ironicize its
own sensationalism, pointing out its alarmism at the same moment that it sounds the
alarm, together with the new possibilities of resistance discussed earlier, tend to reduce
the mobilizing power of moral panics today, at least compared with the reported
situation three or four decades ago.
THE CONCEPT AND ITS USES
As a sociological idea, the concept of a moral panic is at once more Durkheimian and
more Freudian than is usually supposed. Its psychoanalytical aspects – the symptomatic
character of panics, the projective nature of folk devil construction, the social and
psychic conflicts that underlie these processes – are relatively straightforward and don’t
require further elaboration, but it is worth highlighting its Durkheimian dimensions
since these are sometimes overlooked. The Durkheimian elements of Cohen’s theory
relate not just to the boundary-defining nature of moral panics – which, in this respect,
represent an extension of Durkheim’s (1982) theory of deviance reaction albeit in
neurotic form – but also to the ‘collective effervescence’ that moments of moral
panic typically exhibit. One needs to bear in mind the excitement and energy that are
unleashed by moral panic episodes, as well as the enjoyment generated by these collective wave of righteous condemnation – for participants and onlookers, if not for
the targets of reaction. A precondition for the recurring investment of the mass media
and the political class in panic-producing processes is, no doubt, the emotional energy
and collective excitement that are unleashed whenever a mass public can be provoked
into feeling passionate outrage, together with all the opportunities that this energy
In its standard usage (although not in Cohen’s original use) we tend to emphasize
the overblown social reaction that these events involve and to focus upon the actors
and agencies that benefit from the exaggerated response. This is hardly surprising,
given the concept’s roots in the radical interactionist’s critique of social control, and
given its continuing value as a critical tool with which to discredit overzealous law
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
enforcement and moral conservatism. But this focus on power and profit and selfinterested manipulation has tended to overshadow the moral and psychological connotations of the concept – which seem to me to be essential to its meaning. I will now
develop this observation by addressing the concept’s origins, its uses, and the attitudes
that it implies for an observer using a moral panic framework.
As Cohen points out in his introduction to the third edition of Folk Devils and Moral
Panics (2004), the term ‘moral panic’ emerged from late 1960s social reaction theory,
especially the concern with the media’s role in stereotyping and misrepresenting
deviance and the perception that such reporting might contribute to a deviancy
amplification spiral. A new generation of deviancy theorists in Britain, including Jock
Young (in his 1971 study of police as amplifiers of drug-taking deviance), Stan Cohen
(in his 1972 Mods and Rockers study), and Jason Ditton (in developing his ideas on
‘controlology’ – see Ditton, 1979) took up Leslie Wilkins’ (1964) ‘deviancy amplification model’, together with the interactionist ideas of Edwin Lemert (1967) and Kai
Erikson (1966) to develop an approach that emphasized that social control can lead
to intensified deviance through an interactive process of psychological adjustment
and self-fulfilling social action.
These were the concept’s most immediate theoretical origins, although of course
one can trace others, going further back in the sociological past.2 But the idea that
developed in the work of Cohen and his colleagues also had what one might call
a cultural source, deriving from the characteristic social attitudes of young 1960s
sociologists like Cohen, Young and Ditton and their colleagues in the National Deviancy
Conference. This was the outlook of the hip, deviance-appreciating, participant
observer who was often culturally closer to deviants than to their controllers, and
who saw criminal law as a misplaced form of repression, at least as it applied to the
soft deviance of drug taking and sub-cultural style. In the face of what they regarded
as uninformed, intolerant, and unnecessarily repressive reactions to deviance by
conservative authorities, these sociologists developed a standard critical response, a
critique with which to counter oppressive social reaction.
Their critique had two aspects. The first pointed to an empirical mistake, prompted
by misplaced anxiety: ‘Straight society is over-reacting,’ they implied, ‘the problem is
much less serious and much less threatening than people think. Relax, don’t panic, no
one here is getting hurt’. The second aspect was more normative in character, more
focused on the form of the social reaction, and more critical of its moralizing, judgmental stance: ‘The real problem is not the deviant behavior, it is your compulsive need
to moralize. Be more tolerant, more open to difference and diversity. Forget about your
up-tight, out-of-date morality. Relax, don’t panic, no one here is doing wrong’. The
term ‘moral panic’ – as much catchphrase as concept in its typical usage – captured
these responses perfectly, neatly condensing analysis and attitude.
We ought to note, however, that labeling theorists like Cohen and Young were
mostly talking about deviance, minor delinquency and ‘victimless’ offences rather than
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hard-core crime. Their critique of exaggerated moral reaction was directed primarily
towards shallow-end phenomena such as soft drug use, sexual deviance, and juvenile
offending rather than to murder, rape or robbery. Consequently, when Stuart Hall and
his colleagues applied the term ‘moral panic’ to the social reaction prompted by English
‘muggings’ – which is to say, to urban street robberies, which entail violence, fear, and
bodily injury – they were pushing the analysis further than it had gone before. This
move quickly drew criticism, notably from criminologist P. J. Waddington (1986), who
disputed not just Hall et al.’s analysis of the robbery statistics but also their judgment
about what is the appropriate moral response to incidents of violent crime and to the
suffering of its victims.
Despite these criticisms, the appeal of moral panic analysis was so powerful for many
criminologists in the 1970s that its debunking attitude was frequently generalized,
and it became a way of dismissing claims that real crime rates were increasing or that
members of the public ought to feel insecure. As the decade wore on, and recorded
crime rates continued to increase, this radical stance was pilloried by conservative supporters of ‘law and order’ as out of touch with public experience and overly tolerant of
dangerous criminals. By the end of the decade, a group of left-wing criminologists, led
by none other than Jock Young (possibly the first writer to use the phrase ‘moral panic’
in his published work, albeit without the conceptual elaboration it would later receive
in Cohen’s writings), developed a quite different position, which they called ‘realist
criminology’ or ‘left realism’ (Kinsey et al., 1986; Matthews and Young, 1986). Young
describes this criminology as being built upon the injunction to ‘take crime seriously’.
As he wrote later,
[Left realism] emerged as a critique of the predominant tendency in left wing and
liberal commentaries which down-played the problem of crime, talking about mediainstigated moral panics and irrational fears of crime. (Young, n. d.)
As often happens when a concept seems especially powerful or illuminating, the care
and precision of its original application were forgotten as its use became more general
and indiscriminate. Analysis was subordinated to attitude, and, for a brief period in the
late 1970s and 1980s, the term was caught up in ideological battles in which the social
meaning of deviance and reaction, crime and control, became important stakes not just
in criminological debate but also in national politics (Garland, 2001). (For an excellent
discussion of moral panic analysis and its cultural contexts, see Young, 2007.)
Actors, observers, and skeptics
Despite reflexive commentary by the media and knowing exploitation by politicians, the
term ‘moral panic’ is almost always an outside observer’s category, not a self-description
of the participants, at least not while they are participating. It is an ascription, an
attribution, a label applied by outsiders. The label insists that the reactive behavior
it describes is inappropriate, ill-judged, lacking proportion. One must suppose that
the people whose conduct is being described in this way do not believe that they are
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
engaged in a moral panic and would typically contest that description. It is, in that
sense, a negative label applied to those who engage in negative labelling, the analyst’s
revenge on the forces of social reaction.
To ascribe this label to the conduct of others, to describe a social reaction as a moral
panic, implies more than an empirical judgment about conduct: it also implies a definite
stance on the part of the analyst, a specific orientation. The primary attitude of the
sociologist of moral panics is not detached realism, or rationalism, or even just-the-facts
empiricism. It is the attitude of skepticism – an attitude of knowing disbelief, an urbane
refusal to be taken in or carried away. If moral panics sometimes have a religious zeal
to them, even an old-fashioned fundamentalism, the task of exposing them as moral
panics falls to doubters, agnostics, and unbelievers.
In many instances, this amoral skepticism is all that there is, and the exercise is one
of exposure and debunking. Most journalistic writing about moral panic adopts this
mode. But in the work of sociologists like Cohen or Hall, the skepticism that permits
the initial observation gives way to a different attitude – one that is more analytic,
more explanatory, or perhaps better, more diagnostic. Recall that the ascription is of
a ‘panic’ and not merely a mistake or a misjudgment. To that extent, the analyst is
pointing not just to an overreaction but to a form of neurotic behavior, a hysteria, a
psychopathology and, by implication, to an underlying conflict that is producing the
moral panic as its acting-out expression. When this analytical lead is followed through
systematically it can produce an in-depth account of the underlying processes that
converge to over-determine the panic outburst. Typically, a fully developed diagnosis
explanation will operate at the levels of symbolic meaning (why this folk devil, construed
as this kind of monster, with these specific connotations and associations?), social
relations (why this group, with these interests, in this place?) and historical temporality
(why at this moment, after these events, in this period?). Policing the Crisis, with its
layered explanatory framework and its multi-dimensional empirical inquiry, still stands
as something of an exemplar in this regard – not least in its range and ambition, and
in its predictive insights about Britain’s drift to a law and order society.
Conceptual problems and limitations
Moral panic analysis attracts a number of recurring criticisms (for a discussion, see
Thompson (1998) and Goode and Ben Yehuda (1994)). None of these altogether
undermines the value of the concept, but, as Cohen (2002) himself acknowledges they
identify problems and limitations that ought to be borne in mind by analysts who use
the concept in their work. Rather than repeat Cohen’s thoughtful discussion, I shall
merely highlight the chief concerns.
The point of departure for any moral panic analysis is a claim that a particular reaction
is somehow disproportionate to the deviance it condemns.3 This assumption of disproportionality immediately invites empirical disputes about the real nature and extent
of the underlying problem – ‘is the reaction really disproportionate, or is the problem
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bigger than you think?’ But disputes here tend to be somewhat intractable because
the thing being measured is usually not just actual conduct (How many muggings?
How many rioters? How much damage?) but also the size of a potential threat and a
perceived moral endangerment.
Proportionate to what?
The difficulties of measurement and evaluation are practical ones that can often be
managed by careful use of appropriate data and methods of investigation. But, for
some critics, the idea of a measurably proportionate response is not one that makes
sense. Skeptical relativists such as Simon Watney (1987) have observed that when
the sociologist claims to find a social reaction out of proportion, he or she is not
measuring the reaction against some hard reality, but merely against his or her own
representation of the way things are. In this framework of understanding, there is no
resort to the empirical facts that are available to the analyst, nor any appeal to reason –
just a contest of representations that is ultimately determined by power and interest.
As I noted earlier the epistemological question here is as follows: Can the object of
concern (the problem, the deviance, the behavior) ever be known with any objectivity,
or are there only various subjective interpretations and representations? To the extent
the question is empirical, I take the former position. In the event that it is normative, the
pluralism of judgment is largely unavoidable.4
This leads us directly to the normative aspects of moral panics, their element of moral
condemnation. While the sociologist can find solid ground – or something close to it –
when measuring rates of conduct, the extent of material damage, or even the size of
a risk, it is more difficult to assess the validity of the moral judgments made by others.
When someone describes an episode as a moral panic, it is always possible to suppose
that he or she is simply refusing to take seriously the moral viewpoint of those who
are alarmed. What the analyst sees as a hysterical overreaction may be seen by the
participants as an appropriate response to a deeply troubling moral evil. Popular fears
may be well-grounded, moral concern appropriately expressed. How can we choose
between these viewpoints, other than by choosing to take sides on moral issues and
thus stepping outside our role as sociologists?
Perhaps this is why one reads of very few instances of ‘moral panic’ analysis being
applied to episodes where the underlying moral concern appears to be shared by the
sociologists who invoked the term. Consider the case of Philip Jenkins and his book,
Beyond Tolerance: Child Pornography on the Internet (2001), which shows quite clearly
how the moral judgment of the analyst can affect the analysis. Jenkins, the author of
several books on moral panics, tells us that he set out to write a book on internetrelated moral panics that would debunk the claim that web-based child pornography is
a major problem. His investigation led him to the opposite view:
I initially believed that [child pornography] was rare on the Web. I was wrong. It is a
substantial presence, and much of the material out there is worse than most of us can
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
imagine . . . Having spent a decade arguing that various social menaces were vastly
overblown . . . I now found myself in the disconcerting position of seeking to raise
public concern about a quite authentic problem that has been neglected. (pp. 8–9)
Jenkins describes himself as a libertarian who believes that criminal law ought not to
invade issues of personal morality; but this was too much, beyond even his tolerance.
The conceptual breakthrough that initiated the study of social reaction phenomena –
of which moral panics are one category, along with control waves, law and order
campaigns, zero tolerance, defining deviance down, and so on. – was the insight that
social reaction is not fully determined by the deviance to which it purportedly responds,
that such reaction has its own dynamics, and that social reaction can be studied in its
own terms. As Paul Rock (2007: 1) observes,
‘Moral panic’ in particular captured the capacity of control waves to achieve a
phenomenological and social autonomy, acquiring their own life and developing
seemingly independently of the phenomena on which they fed, yet shaping those
phenomena as they evolved.
The study of moral panics is thus part of an important research agenda that hardly
existed prior to the 1960s.
But if the idea of the autonomy of social reaction was liberating and instructive, it can
also be a trap insofar as most social reaction really is related to (or is at least triggered
by) some underlying deviant phenomena, however contested and constructed that
deviance may be, and however tenuously the reaction relates to it. In its cruder applications, moral panic analysis tends to lose sight of this relation, making the underlying
problem disappear and disregarding the concerns of those adversely affected by it.
The trick is to think not in terms of an absolute distinction (studying reaction but not
deviance, punishment but not crime) but in terms of relative autonomy – studying
the multiple dynamics of reaction, only some of which relate to the deviance being
addressed. The links between deviance and reaction, crime and punishment, may be
tenuous and under-determining, but they usually exist.
The claim that a society (as opposed to an individual or individuals) can engage in
hysterical, panic-stricken behavior seems, to some critics, to involve an illegitimate
rendering of collective social processes as individualistic psychological ones. And in
some of the earlier moral panic analyses there was a tendency to talk of ‘society’ and
‘social reaction’ as if these were undifferentiated, unified, and personified, when in fact
the activities of actors within the media, the police, the government and the public,
are liable to involve very different interests and motivations (McRobbie and Thornton,
1995). An increasing awareness of political fragmentation and media proliferation make
such anthropomorphized accounts less credible, and less common, in the contemporary
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Policing the Crisis (Hall et al., 1978) represents an interesting attempt to claim both
that there is diversity and conflicts of interest within the state, the media, and the ruling
bloc as well as within the population at large and that a moral panic about mugging
could help shape a more or less unified ‘public opinion’ about law and order. The
processes that produced this unified representation within a complex and contradictory
field of power relations are a major focus of the book, conceived within a Gramscian
theoretical framework that focused on the ideological and institutional work that gave
rise to this ‘spontaneous’ public response. As the authors put it,
Public opinion about crime does not simply form up at random . . . it is the awakening
of lay public attitudes, and their crystallizing in forms which underpin and support
the viewpoints already in circulation, which help to close the consensual circle,
providing the lynch-pin of legitimation. (Hall et al., 1978: 136–7)
The ethics of attribution
I noted earlier that ‘moral panic’ is always an ascribed term, attributed from the
outside, usually in a critical manner. Although the problem has not previously been
acknowledged, it seems to me that this relation of critical ascription brings with it
what one might call an ethics of attribution that shapes the use of the term, and occasionally restrains analysts from applying it. In other words, there may be situations in
which the empirical conditions seem to invite ‘moral panic’ analysis but where ethical
considerations make the attribution seem tactless, morally insensitive, or otherwise
inappropriate. What are these ethical considerations and how do they shape analysis?
Perhaps the most important are questions of scale and intensity, and considerations
of those harmed by the deviance in question.
Think of the massive and sometimes hyperbolic media and governmental response
to the attacks of 11 September 2001. This was an episode of social reaction that seems
clearly to meet the criteria of a moral panic attribution – exhibiting concern, hostility,
consensus, disproportionality, and volatility, as well as a definite moral dimension and
a sense that a way of life is being threatened – and yet there is a definite reluctance to
describe this episode as involving a moral panic.
In the aftermath of 9/11 it was noticeable that commentators carefully avoided
describing the reaction as a moral panic – even when the conduct of the press, the
control apparatus, and the public seemed to invite precisely this kind of analysis.
Indeed, there was an article published six months after the events (Walker, 2002), interviewing a number of ‘moral panic’ sociologists – Joel Best, Philip Jenkins, Eric Goode –
all of whom took great care to refuse the attribution of this term to the reaction, even
though, as they noted, it appeared to fit the model in most respects.
Why was this? In part, no doubt, it was due to uncertainty about the nature of
the threat involved. In early 2002, following the plane attacks and an outbreak of
anthrax poisoning, no one was sure about the scale of the danger or the likelihood
of subsequent attacks. But the primary reason for this reluctance to invoke the idea
of ‘moral panic’ was, I think, an ethical one. These sociologists were unwilling to
challenge the moral sentiments that drove the social reaction. They were unwilling
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
to play the debunking skeptics in the face of such intense grief and fear and so many
murdered victims. It seems likely, at least to me, that they saw the attribution of ‘moral
panic’ as analytically appropriate but ethically taboo.
Interestingly, six years on, articles and books have begun to appear that do make
the attribution, describing the response to 9/11 as a gigantic moral panic with massive
consequences for those caught in its repressive hysteria (Rothe and Muzzatti, 2004;
Mueller, 2006; for a more nuanced application, see Welch, 2006). Now that emotions
have cooled, and fears receded, analytical skepticism seems more feasible, although
many will still regard it as scandalous and irresponsible.
The ethical inhibitions I have described may not be very important in practice –
although they will tend to prevent the social reactions to major events and large scale
disasters being studied within a moral panic framework, at least for a time. More important is what this point reveals about the critical relationship that moral panic analysis
sets up between the analyst and the social actors analyzed. Whether intended or not,
moral panic analysis carries with it a certain aggression and critical disparagement
that cannot be fully concealed beneath the guise of scholarly objectivity.
IN CONCLUSION: CONTRASTIVE AND
For a concept to be both meaningful and capable of precise application it has to operate
within a network of other concepts, against which it can be distinguished or opposed.
The broader analytical context within which the concept of moral panic operates is the
study of social reaction, and the analysis of ‘social reaction’ – a generic name for a very
varied and complex set of phenomena – clearly lends itself to more than one concept.
I conclude this note by identifying some contrastive and complementary concepts that
might be used to sharpen the focus and extend the range of moral panic analysis.
An important contrastive concept that operates in the same general framework as
moral panic is the idea of ‘denial’ – a topic on which Stanley Cohen has also written
extensively (Cohen, 2000). As a psychological concept, denial is the refusal to permit
a disturbing event access to consciousness, but as Cohen has shown, denial also has
sociological dimensions and can be analyzed as a set of social practices. Discussing the
conduct of state agencies and other authorities, he distinguishes ‘literal denial (nothing
happened); interpretive denial (something happened but it’s not what you think) and
implicatory denial (what happened was not really bad and can be justified)’ (Cohen,
2004: xxxiii). If moral panic is an excessive or disproportionate moral reaction, denial
is the inappropriate absence of such reaction. It is not a hysterical outburst but rather
a hysterical (or deliberate) silence, a determination (conscious or unconscious) not to
speak of the disturbing events or episodes.
If we take these two aspects of Cohen’s work together, it becomes apparent that
the study of moral panics ought to be considered not as a stand-alone undertaking,
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but instead as one moment in a larger concern with what one might call the sociology
of moral reaction. Taken as a whole, Cohen’s work analyzes a variety of types of social
reaction, tracing a continuum of collective responses to social and moral deviance.
Moral panics, his first venture into that territory, came to represent one pole of that
continuum. It is, as I have shown, the skeptical pole, emphasizing over-reaction, noisy
clamor, and unnecessary moralizing. At the other pole is the phenomenon of ‘denial’,
where the problem is the opposite – a tendency to silence, a pattern of under-reaction,
a failure of the moral imagination.5
Interestingly, this rudimentary sociology of moral reaction has not yet developed any
category designed to identify or describe what one might term morally appropriate
social reaction – although such a category seems logically integral to the project.
(Cohen (2000) identifies ‘acknowledgement’ as the opposite of ‘denial’ but he is referring to the recognition of atrocities by state actors, which is why the category is so
lacking in affect and moral tone.) Indeed, as critics of moral panic analysis point out, a
guiding sense of what a morally appropriate social reaction might look like is implicit in
any judgment that a specific reaction was excessive, or disproportionate, or panicked.
In other words, an implicit, unarticulated concept of the well-judged moral response
is always present in such work, although rarely articulated or defended.
It seems to me that the need for an explicit conception of this kind is what Cohen
is pointing to in the last pages of his introduction to the third edition (2004: xxxiii)
where he talks about cultural politics that involve ‘stirring up “good” moral panics’,
although here the word ‘panic’ gets in the way inasmuch as it implies over-reaction
and ill-judged response. Perhaps Durkheim’s notion of a righteous, morally toned, ‘passionate outrage’ (Durkheim, 1997) would be closer to the mark. Given pre-existing
social divisions, disputes about the interpretation of events and the attribution of
responsibility, and also the occupational preference for critique rather than moral
endorsement, sociologists are unlikely to find many empirical instances of ‘morally
appropriate social reaction’. Sociologists – and even exponents of the ‘sociology of
morals’ such as Durkheim and Cohen – tend to be more comfortable addressing
deviant cases. But the existence of such a category must logically be accepted, if only
as a heuristic device in the analysis of deviant cases.
If the concept of ‘moral panic’ was developed to deflate social reaction by pointing to
a neurotic over-reaction or a symptomatic hysteria, then perhaps its antithesis is the
concept of ‘cultural trauma’, intended to mark a profound moral event and its lasting
cultural consequences. Jeffrey Alexander et al. (2004) have recently developed this
concept of ‘cultural trauma’ to identify events that provoke deep moral concern and
societal response and to trace the wounds that these traumas leave in a culture. The
Nazi Holocaust and America’s experience of slavery are events of this kind. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the political scandal of Watergate may also
fit the category. But the use of this term carries no challenge to the integrity or the
proportionality of the social reaction. On the contrary, it unquestioningly accepts that
ON THE CONCEPT OF MORAL PANIC
some events are so profoundly disturbing to the moral order that they traumatize a
culture and the collective life of its members. Alexander et al. (2004: 1) put it thus,
Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected
to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness,
marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental
and irrevocable ways.
Thus, when criminologists discuss the social reaction that followed the murder of
Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, and argue over whether it should be classified as
moral panic (see Downes and van Swaaningen, 2007) or as cultural trauma (see de
Haan, 2007) they are, in part, assessing the scale and gravity of the event, and the
moral integrity of the responses to it.
Risk society reactions
The voluminous literature that has recently grown up around the issue of ‘risk’ and the
‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992) has many dimensions (Garland, 2003) and not all of these
issues are directly relevant to our discussion here. But to the extent that this literature
discusses risk perception, risk communication, risk management and the general
politics and sociology of risk, there are clearly important overlaps with the moral panic
literature (and, of course, with the research literature on disasters, which was an important source for Cohen’s first book). One can distinguish moral panics from the kind
of social reaction produced by the threat of global warming, or nuclear disaster, or biological hazards by pointing to the issues of scale and integrity that I discussed earlier,
and also by observing that the latter tend to involve risks to the health and welfare of
a population, rather than threats to the moral code of a particular group. Moral panics
involve anxious disapproval of moral threats, whereas risk society threats involve fearful
uncertainty about material hazards.
With this in mind, writers such as Ungar (2001) have sought to draw a sharp distinction between the phenomena (and associated theory) of moral panics and the
phenomena addressed by the risk society literature:
Moral panics usually focus on a social control processes aimed at the moral failings
of dispossessed groups. Risk society issues tend to involve diverse interest groups
contending over relatively intractable scientific claims.
But this distinction can be overdrawn (Welch, 2006), and it would be a pity if the new
research on risk and risk perception were not used to deepen our understanding of
moral panics, for example, on the question of the relationship between ‘subjective risk’
and ‘objective risk’ – a topic that has been subjected to sophisticated theorizing and
research in the risk literature (see Garland (2003) for a discussion and citations) but
which has often been neglected in moral panic studies. We might also note that while
risk society reactions typically begin with health dangers and threats to life, they often
end by questioning the morality of specific ways of life. Where this is the case, there
may be little to distinguish moral panics from risk society reactions except the scale of
the perceived issue and the moral attitude that we bring to bear upon it.
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A shorter version of this article was presented at a British Academy discussion evening on 9
March 2007 together with presentations by Stanley Cohen and Stuart Hall. An audio recording
of the event is available at http://britac.studyserve.com/home/default.asp. I am grateful to Paul
Rock, David Downes, Michael Welch, and Jock Young for comments and suggestions and to
Gretchen Feltes and Allison McKim for research assistance. I would also like to acknowledge the
support of the Filomen D’Agostino and Max E. Greenberg Research Fund.
1 This reference to a decreasing murder rate simplifies a rather complex picture. Although the
murder rates in Britain fell in the last year, the larger trend of the last two decades is one
of increasing murders, with lower class young men aged 20 to 24 being the most frequent
victims. Murder by firearms has increased but remains much less common than murder by
other means, such as strangulation or stabbing. See Dorling (2005).
2 Paul Rock (2007) has pointed out that Stan Cohen’s conception is similar in some respects
to ideas that were current in American sociology: see the discussion of ‘pseudo-disasters’ in
Drabeck and Quarantelli (1967) and Gerassi (1965/2001). Best’s discussion of ‘urban legends’
(Best and Horiuchi, 1985) cites several earlier studies reporting various episodes of collective
hysteria and rumor-driven reaction.
3 As Jock Young (2007, personal communication) pointed out to me, for the moral panic
analyst, the reaction is viewed as ‘proportionate’ not to the deviance being condemned but
to the underlying anxieties being expressed.
4 As Paul Rock (2007) notes, the same problems of evidence and evaluation apply to the
‘underlying anxieties’ that the moral panic analyst claims are the real cause of the social
5 Somewhere between these extremes of over-reaction and under-reaction lies the focus of
Cohen’s work in Visions of Social Control (1985) which addresses the problem of moral
misclassification and the self-deluding amorality of control talk. For a discussion of both
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DAVID GARLAND, Arthur T. Vanderbilt Professor of Law and Professor of Sociology,
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© 2009 BY THE JOURNAL OF DRUG ISSUES
THE DECONSTRUCTION OF A DRUG CRISIS: MEDIA
COVERAGE OF DRUG ISSUES DURING THE 1996
TRAVIS A. DESERAN, JAMES D. ORCUTT
The 1996 U.S. presidential campaign represents an unusual and important case
for research on the social construction of drug problems. Presidential candidate
Robert Dole and other prominent politicians made dramatic claims about a growing
teenage “drug crisis” based on supportive evidence from several national surveys.
However, these claims were often ignored and even criticized by the news media.
This paper examines how and why journalists responded so differently to this
putative crisis than they did to earlier drug crises, such as the media “feeding
frenzy” about crack cocaine in the 1980s. An analysis of news stories, political
statements, and editorial commentary that appeared in major news outlets during
1995 and 1996 reveals a number of tactics that media workers employed to
deconstruct politicians’ claims and to frame the drug issue as an election-year
strategy rather than as an authentic crisis.
Anti-drug campaigns in the United States have been fertile terrain for theoretical
and empirical work on the social construction of public problems. Starting with
Becker’s (1963) account of Harry Anslinger’s entrepreneurial role in the passage
of the Marihuana Tax Act and Gusfield’s (1963) analysis of the symbolic politics
of the Prohibition Movement, numerous studies have shown how claims-makers
in government, in social movements, and in the mass media collaborated in the
Travis A. Deseran, M.S., is a senior research manager at Healthcare Research Consulting Group
in New York City. He received his Master’s degree in sociology at Florida State University. James
D. Orcutt, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of sociology at Florida State University. His interests include
deviance theory, the social construction of alcohol and drug problems, and the epidemiology of deviant
drinking and drug use.
JOURNAL OF DRUG ISSUES 0022-0426/09/04 871-892
construction of a series of “drug crises” over the past century (Goode & Ben-Yehuda,
1994; Musto, 1999; Reinarman, 2006).
The mid-to-late 1980s was an especially fruitful period for constructionist
research on drug problems. Even though national surveys indicated that most
forms of drug use were declining during this period, these years were marked by
unprecedented levels of public and political concern over an “epidemic” of cocaine
use among American adolescents. Subsequently, researchers and commentators
focused on how media “hype”—intense and sensationalistic claims-making activity
by journalists—created the conditions for a moral panic about teenage drug use
(Diamond, Accosta, & Thornton, 1987; Goode & Ben-Yehuda, 1994; Jensen, Gerber,
& Babcock, 1991; Orcutt & Turner, 1993; Reinarman & Levine, 1989a, 1989b).
Beginning in 1986, press coverage of drug issues increased dramatically with
news articles and broadcasts routinely characterizing the crack cocaine problem as
a “crisis,” “epidemic,” or “plague” (Chiricos, 1996; Reinarman & Levine, 1989a;
Shoemaker, 1989). Politicians capitalized on heightened concerns about drug
issues, and the “War on Drugs” became a dominant theme in election campaigns
and in federal legislation through the rest of the decade. In general, constructionist
analyses of this period have reinforced a view of drug crises as collaborative
claims-making activity in which political leaders and, “media organizations [work]
in unison to promote fears of drug abuse” (Glassner, 1999, p. 131; also see Best,
1999; Reinarman, 2006).
However, in this paper we examine a subsequent episode of claims-making
activity that contrasts in important ways with the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and
leads to quite a different view of political and media work on drug crises. Over the
course of the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign, a number of prominent politicians—
most notably, Republican nominee Robert Dole—engaged in a well-financed and
widely-publicized effort to define teenage drug use as a serious national crisis.
Furthermore, significant increases in survey estimates of drug use during the early
1990s provided a rich empirical resource for claims about a growing teenage drug
problem. Yet, as we will show in our analysis of national news stories about drug
issues during the mid-1990s, the intense “hype” and sensationalism of a decade
earlier was virtually absent from media coverage of this putative crisis. Instead,
the news media employed a variety of critical techniques to deconstruct politicians’
claims and to frame the drug issue as a political strategy rather than as an authentic
crisis. In positioning themselves outside of the claims-making arena as analysts
rather than as collaborators, many journalists adopted, in effect, a constructionist
stance toward politicians’ claims and counter-claims about the drug problem.
Thus, the ill-fated anti-drug campaign of 1996 serves as a useful negative case
to gain theoretical insight into organizational, political, and historical conditions
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DECONSTRUCTION OF A DRUG CRISIS
that promote or discourage the development of drug crises. Similar to Best’s (1999)
examination of “short-lived” social problems, such as “wilding” and freeway
violence, we attempt to determine why neither empirical evidence of increasing
drug use nor sponsorship by powerful political interests was sufficient to generate
more than short-lived media coverage of the alleged crisis. By identifying factors
that set this episode apart from previous instances of intense and sustained media
work on drug epidemics, we hope to arrive at a fuller understanding of variations
and contingencies in processes of claims-making about illegal drug use and other
We analyze claims about teenage drug use made by politicians, government
officials, journalists, and drug researchers that appeared in four major newspapers,
two weekly news magazines, and one television news program from September 1995
to October 1996. For newspaper evidence, we systematically searched the Nexis©
database to find articles on teenage drug use from the New York Times, the Washington
Post, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today.1 In addition, we examined articles on
teenage drug use from two weekly news magazines, Newsweek and U.S. News &
World Report, and transcripts from the Public Broadcasting System’s NewsHour,
which devoted two broadcasts to the issue of teenage drug use. Political claims were
taken from speeches by Senator Dole, President Clinton, and other politicians that
were cited in news articles and often available on the Internet. Both Dole and Clinton
ran campaign ads mentioning drug use that were transcribed in the New York Times
and the Washington Post. Finally, we examined the results and press reports of two
national surveys: the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse conducted by the
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Monitoring the Future
survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research
(ISR) under grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Media coverage of teenage drug use peaked during three months immediately
preceding the 1996 presidential election, but the basic themes in claims-making
activity and media framing of the drug issue were established in 1995. Two
nationwide surveys released in late 1995 showed significant increases in estimates
of teenage drug use beginning in 1992, the year Bill Clinton won the United States
presidential election. We begin by showing how politicians’ and media workers’
responses to these survey results served as a foundation for their respective stances
toward the election-year drug crisis. Then, we focus on the intensification of claimsmaking activity in August 1996, when results were released from the 1995 National
Household Survey on Drug Abuse. We show how politicians used these results
to bolster claims about a growing and serious teenage drug problem in campaign
speeches, television advertising, and talk show appearances. Finally, we examine
the techniques that media workers used to deconstruct these crisis-claims and to
frame the drug issue as a calculated political strategy.
SEPTEMBER 1995: THE BEGINNING OF THE DEBATE
One of the first indications of increased teenage drug use was provided by the
1994 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the Department
of Health and Human Services (HHS). Released in September 1995, the survey
showed that estimates of monthly rates of teenage drug use had increased from
6.1% in 1992 to 9.5% in 1994.2 Much of this increase was attributable to marijuana
use, which increased from an estimate of 4.0% in 1992 to 7.3% in 1994 (Substance
Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], 1995). In the press
conference, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala summarized these results and offered
some interpretations of the increases. She noted that, “while most types of illicit drug
use have not increased—and casual cocaine use continues to decline—marijuana use
among 12 to 17 year olds has nearly doubled since 1992” (Shalala, 1995a, emphasis
in original). She suggested a causal sequence of events, referring to statistics showing
a relationship between attitudes toward drug use and the prevalence of drug use:
“When teenagers’ perception of the harm caused by marijuana goes down, marijuana
use goes up. It’s that simple.” Discussing some of the implications of the findings,
she stated the need for a “steady drumbeat” of anti-drug messages to youths.
While the press conference focused on the dangers of teenage drug use, both
Shalala and Lee Brown, the White House drug policy advisor, made several direct
references to the political climate surrounding the survey findings. Shalala (1995a)
took an overtly partisan stance in her speech and attacked a proposed budget passed
by the Republican-majority House of Representatives that would affect the funding
The 1994 Household Survey confirms the wisdom of the Clinton
Administration’s comprehensive anti-drug strategy. It also confirms
the folly...of the House Republicans’ budget proposal to slash drug
prevention and treatment funds and leave our children to fend for
themselves in the midst of a resurgence of marijuana.
After Shalala’s speech, Brown (1995) also criticized the Republican Congress:
“Drug use is up, yet Congress is cutting the funds for the prevention activities for
kids that we know work.”
Republican politicians were quick to respond by asserting that the results were
evidence of ineffective leadership by President Clinton. Senator Dole, who had not
yet been nominated as the Republican presidential candidate, was one of the first
politicians to attribute responsibility for the rise in teenage drug use to the Clinton
administration. On the same day as the press conference, Dole denounced Clinton’s
drug policies from the Senate floor: “While drug use has gone up during the last two
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DECONSTRUCTION OF A DRUG CRISIS
and a half years, the Clinton administration has sat on the sidelines, transforming the
war on drugs into a full-scale retreat” (Washington Post, 1995). While politicians
and government officials were issuing grave warnings about neglect of a growing
drug problem, the media devoted little coverage to the results of the Household
survey. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran brief articles mentioning
the findings and highlighting the increase in marijuana use among teenagers.3 Both
articles focused on statistics from the survey rather than on the emerging debate
between the Clinton administration and the Republican opposition.
On December 15, 1995 the results of another major drug survey were released,
providing further evidence of increases in teenage drug use. The Monitoring the
Future survey of high-school students, conducted by researchers at the University
of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR), showed an increase in teenage
drug use starting in 1992. According to the survey results, the percentage of high
school seniors who reported past-month use of any illicit drug rose from 14.4%
in 1992 to 23.8% in 1995. At the press conference, Shalala again portrayed the
increases in a dramatic fashion: “We have sounded alarm bells about rising levels
of substance abuse by American teenagers. Today, I want to ring that alarm bell
faster and louder and send a message to every parent in this country: your children
are at risk” (Shalala, 1995b). Again, she defended the administration and attacked
the Republican budget initiatives:
Our bold approach [to dealing with drug use] is the right way—the
common sense way—to help families and save futures... This is not
the time to pull back—as the Republican budget is doing—when
the monsters of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol are reaching out their
long arms to snatch away our young people, their health, and their
Unlike the Household survey, the ISR survey received a large amount of media
coverage the day after the press conference. However, the coverage focused on
the political environment in which the survey was released instead of the social
ramifications of teenage substance abuse. Both the New York Times and the
Washington Post featured lengthy articles detailing the findings and the political
debate surrounding teenage drug use. According to the December 16 front page
article in the Washington Post, the survey, “stoked an already heated partisan debate
over the Clinton administration’s anti-drug efforts” (Thomas, 1995). This debate
was also noted by the New York Times: “The Clinton administration and Republican
Congressional leaders blamed each other for making the problem of drug use among
young people worse” (New York Times, 1995). The article quoted Bob Dole, who
was still campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination: “[F]rom day
one, this [Clinton] administration has regrettably failed to make the war on drugs
the top priority it should be.”
On December 19, only four days after the 1995 ISR press release, Republican
Senator Orrin Hatch released a lengthy report for Congress entitled “Losing Ground
Against Drugs: A Report on Increasing Illicit Drug Use and National Drug Policy.”
Highly critical of the drug policies of the Clinton administration, he argued for a
renewed focus on the problem of teenage drug use: “Drug use has in fact experienced
a dramatic resurgence among our youth, a disturbing trend that could quickly return
the United States to the epidemic of drug use that characterized the decade of the
1970s” (Hatch, 1995, pp. 1-2). In the report, Hatch referred to a survey from the
December 1995 Gallup Poll Monthly (Saad, 1995), in which the respondents ranked
drug abuse second, below violent crime, as “the most serious domestic issue facing
the country today.”
Whereas politicians used drug use and public opinion data to make broad claims
about the seriousness of the drug problem and to assert their leadership on the issue,
journalists began to adopt a more analytical approach to these survey data. In a
February 20, 1996 New York Times article, “Marijuana Use by Youth Continues to
Rise,” Christopher Wren (1996a) closely examined data from both the Household
and ISR surveys. His article discussed the increases in teenage drug use as well
as changes in attitudes, and included two graphs that illustrated these trends. One
of these graphs was an unusually sophisticated presentation of 16 years of data on
marijuana use and disapproval of drug use from the Monitoring the Future Study.
In addition to highlighting key historical events (e.g., “June 1986: Basketball star
Len Bias died from an overdose of cocaine”), the graph also revealed that the annual
prevalence of marijuana use among high school seniors began to increase during
George Bush’s presidency in 1992, a year before Clinton took office. The analytical
approach of this article—and its use of graphics that placed time-series data in
historical context—differed markedly from the dramatic and often distorted use of
drug statistics by media workers during the mid-1980s (see Orcutt & Turner, 1993).
Later in 1996, as political claims-making intensified, this analytical approach to data
on teenage drug use became even more apparent in media coverage of the drug issue.
A CRISIS IN THE MAKING? THE 1995 NATIONAL HOUSEHOLD SURVEY ON DRUG ABUSE
Although it was mentioned occasionally in campaign speeches and news articles
throughout the summer, teenage drug use remained a dormant issue until the release
of the 1995 Household survey on August 20, 1996. The 1995 Household survey
showed that estimates of past month illicit drug use by youth aged 12-17 increased
from 8.2% in 1994 to 10.9% in 1995 (SAMHSA, 1996a). Again, marijuana use
accounted for much of this increase, rising from 6.0% in 1994 to 8.2% in 1995.
Past month cocaine use by teenagers rose from 0.3% to 0.8%, an increase of 166%.
JOURNAL OF DRUG ISSUES
DECONSTRUCTION OF A DRUG CRISIS
While the increases from 1994 to 1995 were only moderate, they extended an upward
trend in drug use statistics since 1992. After declining steadily between 1979 and
1991, estimates of overall drug use among teenagers increased 105% from 1992 to
1995, with marijuana use increasing by 141%.
In this press conference, HHS Secretary Shalala highlighted the importance of the
community rather than the government in reducing drug use: “None of us can afford
to forget that youth substance abuse is an American problem—not a government
problem—and it’s going to take the leadership of citizens and communities all
across the country, from every region and every walk of life, and especially from
parents, to save our children” (SAMHSA, 1996b). She claimed that drug use should
be seen as a threat to children rather than as a campaign issue, and offered three
interpretations of the findings that dissociated teenage drug use from its immediate
political context: (1) the increases began in 1992, whereas Clinton was inaugurated
in 1993: “What we’re seeing is something very serious, a multi-year trend that
began before [the Clinton administration] came to office”; (2) the level of drug use
among teenagers was still relatively low, “far below the peak years of the late 1970s
and early 1980s”; and (3) debate over teenage drug use should not be mediated
by political partisanship: “The kids do not know whether they are Republicans or
Democrats yet.... This is a bipartisan issue” (Public Broadcasting System [PBS],
1996a). In another press conference later that day, White House press secretary
Mike McCurry re-emphasized Shalala’s final point: “The one thing we can’t do is
to turn drug use among young people into a political football because that is the
wrong message for kids” (Nichols, 1996).
On August 21, 1996, the results of the 1995 Household survey made front page
headlines in almost every major newspaper. However, in each of the initial articles,
reportage of the increases in teenage drug use was counterbalanced with observations
about their impact on the presidential campaign. For example, the Washington Post
headline read, “Teens’ Use of Drugs Still Rising: GOP Seizes on Survey Showing a
Doubling to 10.9 % Since 1992” (Suro, 1996a). The New York Times, after noting
that, “marijuana smoking among teenagers had jumped 141 % from 1992 to 1995
and overall teenage drug use more than doubled,” stated that, “[t]he figures were
immediately pounced upon as campaign ammunition by Republicans” (Goldberg,
The media’s dual focus on social and political ramifications of the drug survey
was exemplified by the front page of the August 21 USA Today, which included two
different articles: “Teens and Drugs: Today’s Youth Just Don’t See the Dangers”
(Friend, 1996) and, “White House, GOP Spar on Drug Report” (Nichols, 1996).
The first article reported that, “the USA could lose a decade of progress against
drug abuse unless the recent rapid increase in use among teenagers can be halted....
[D]rugs have become so widespread among teens that in a classroom of 25, three
are drug users.” After citing several statistics from the Household survey to illustrate
the increases in drug use, the article included excerpts from interviews with high
school students. “[M]embers of USA Today’s teen panel say the use of marijuana is
so widespread that teens don’t really even consider it a drug.” In contrast, the second
article focused solely on drug use as a campaign issue. It began by stating that, “teenage drug use became the latest hot-button issue of the presidential campaign Tuesday
after release of a report showing drug use up sharply.” The article went on to cite
conflicting claims made by Democrats and Republicans concerning the increases.
In the months following the August 20 press release, Republican politicians used
both the Household survey data and the media coverage of the issue to support their
claims about a teenage drug epidemic. Only five days after the press release, Bob
Dole stated in a campaign speech: “You saw it shouting from banner headlines in
the papers just this last week. Drug use among teenagers has more than doubled in
America. It’s up 105%. And it’s not just marijuana, it’s hard stuff. It’s cocaine. It’s
heroin. It’s LSD” (Seelye, 1996a). During the week of the Democratic National
Convention, Dole continued to attack Clinton’s drug policies, claiming, “the terrible
truth is this new drug epidemic never had to happen. The lives lost need not have
been lost.... [T]he Clinton administration surrendered, they raised the white flag in
the war on drugs” (Walsh, 1996). The Dole campaign featured a list of increases in
drug use in their homepage on the Internet (Dole/Kemp ‘96 Online Campaign, 1996):
• Marijuana use soared 141% from 1992 to 1995 among
• Cocaine use by young people rose 166% from 1994 to 1995.
• Heroin-related overdoses increased to record levels, jumping
from 48,003 in 1992 to 76,023 in 1995.
• Methamphetamine-related deaths have increased nationally by
145% over the past two years.
Dramatic increases were also reported by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch,
who referred to the statistics from the Household survey on Public Television’s
NewsHour: “I’ve accused the President of being AWOL or absent without leadership
on drugs since 1992; marijuana usage has jumped 141%, cocaine usage has jumped
166%. Methamphetamine has jumped 310%—320% actually. LSD is at the highest
level ever in the history of our country. It’s jumped a dramatic percentage of 183%”
Claims about increases in drug use were also made on the Senate floor. On
September 4 several members of Congress delivered statements for a Senate
Judiciary Committee Hearing entitled, “Teen Drug Use—Recent Upward Trends.”
JOURNAL OF DRUG ISSUES
DECONSTRUCTION OF A DRUG CRISIS
Senator Hatch, after summarizing the statistical evidence of increasing drug use
from several national surveys, directly attributed the increases to the Clinton
administration: “Many of us believe that President Clinton has not provided the kind
of leadership the American people deserve on this issue” (Hatch, 1996). Democratic
Senator Edward Kennedy countered the statement by noting that Republicans have
cut funds for drug treatment programs and have been negligent about reducing
tobacco use among youth: “Tobacco is a gateway drug. If we do more to prevent
smoking by teenagers, we will also be taking a great step to halt abuse of other
drugs” (Kennedy, 1996).
Dole’s campaign ran two television advertisements that featured claims about
teenage drug use. The first advertisement—which began airing only seven days after
the Household survey—was the most dramatic, equating the drug problem with
the threat of nuclear war. It was patterned after a well-known advertisement from
Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 presidential campaign, which showed a nuclear explosion
obliterating a scene of a little girl picking daisy petals. In Dole’s advertisement, a
similar girl is picking daisies, but the script stated: “Thirty years ago, the biggest
threat to her was nuclear war. Today, the threat is drugs. Teenage drug use has
doubled in the last four years” (Seelye, 1996b). The second advertisement, one of
the most memorable of the campaign, begins with an announcer stating: “Teenage
drug use has doubled since 1992. And Bill Clinton? He cut the White House drug
office 83%. His own surgeon general even considered legalizing drugs. And in front
of our children, on MTV, the president himself...” The commercial then showed
footage of Clinton on an MTV program saying he would inhale marijuana if given
a second chance: “Sure, if I could; I tried before.” (Nagourney, 1996).
The Clinton campaign soon began airing an advertisement in response to Dole’s
claims. In the ad, an announcer stated: “President Clinton expanded the death penalty
for drug kingpins. Nearly 40% more border agents to stop drugs. Record number of
drug felons in federal prisons. President Clinton expanded school anti-drug programs.
Dole and Gingrich tried to cut them and voted against 100,000 police” (Kurtz, 1996).
DECONSTRUCTING THE CRISIS
As the political debate intensified, Dole’s attacks on Clinton and Clinton’s
responses became a newsworthy topic in itself. A New York Times article entitled,
“Parties Try to Exploit Teen-Age Drug Rise” noted that, “the issue was quickly
and thoroughly politicized” (Toner, 1996). The author argued that Dole and the
Republicans were, “using the drug report to buttress [their] indictment of the
Clinton administration as permissive baby-boomers with questionable values.”
Several newspaper editorials and opinion columns expressed disapproval with the
politicization of teenage drug use. An editorial in the August 23 New York Times
(1996a) clearly illustrates this critical posture toward the political debate:
Unfortunately, [teenage drug use] was immediately politicized in
a manner that clouded rational discussion. Republicans blamed
the increases on a failure of leadership by President Clinton and
an allegedly permissive attitude toward drugs in the White House.
Democrats pointed to signs that the upsurge actually started before
Mr. Clinton took office, and blamed Congressional Republicans for
indifference...It is appropriate to make drugs a campaign issue, but
the problem needs solutions, not finger-pointing.
In addition to critiquing “politicized” claims about the drug problem, the media
called upon a variety of “drug experts” for alternative explanations of upward trends
in drug use. News articles and television broadcasts featured analyses by scholars
such as Mark Kleiman, UCLA professor of policy studies (Toner, 1996), Herbert
Kleber of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University
(Witkin, 1996), Lloyd Johnston, director of the Monitoring the Future Survey
(Leland, 1996), and Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center in New York
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