We’re in a strange situation right now. Quarantine and self isolation everywhere. If you’re still out there hanging out with friends, partying, etc. in the midst of March 2020, you should really reconsider your attitude. This is not a drill. Stay home, safe lives.
Having that said, this is probably as much as we would have needed to hear in the media, yet, every time we take a glimpse at any news outlet, being that newspaper, TV, or the internet, we seem to hear more horror stories about the current COVID-19 outbreak. Are news always portraying the facts though? Should we believe them? Shouldn’t we? Should we always doubt them? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. In order to understand why news outlets run with panic articles we first have to understand why media outlets broadcast what they do.
One concept, when it comes to broadcasting / content creation is agenda setting. While there’s lots of research on this topic and quite a few corresponding theories to be understood the gist of agenda setting simply is: Influence the audience via your news coverage. Or as wikipedia puts it: “Agenda–setting theory describes the “ability (of the news media) to influence the importance placed on the topics of the public agenda“”
This tells us that every media outlet basically has an agenda and the way they portray certain issues is usually in line with their agenda. Fox News, for example, will always highlights issues in a more right wing way and more pro Trump as CNN for example.
This, very often, not only applies to news media though. When looked at closely most social media posts, influencer content, expert discussions, etc. all have certain agendas that drive them and the way they portray the topics they cover. Even music, tv shows, and other entertainment venues could be subjected to agenda setting. Hence we have to be aware of how we consume any kind of media. We know that already though, right?
Now that we understand how media outlets set their agendas, let’s look deeper into why and how panic helps the media and other stakeholders. Other stakeholders you might ask? Who else is interested in controlling audience behavior and what they consume? Yes, exactly.
The term moral panics is not a new one by the way. It came to prominence around 1970 when teen groups (Mods vs. Rockers) ‘terrorized’ certain areas of England. Ever since the term is being used to describe the demonization of certain events in order to drive specific agendas.
We had this back in the 80s with children being kidnapped or poisoned with poison candy on the way school. The media took a few of those incidents, exaggerated them, made you feel it could happen to you all the time, and then ran with it for a while to increase sales and views.
The same then happened with internet & pornography, games & school shootings, you name it.
One of the leading researchers on this topic, Stanely Cohen, established five phases of moral panics:
- Something or someone is defined as a threat to values or interests
- This threat is depicted in an easily recognisable form by the media
- There is a rapid build-up of public concern
- There is a response from authorities or opinion makers
- The panic recedes or results in social changes
Looking at the current Coronavirus panic we can clearly see that we are also going through those stages at the very moment. It remains to be seen how step 5 will impact us though.
Re-iterating what we said before: Moral Panics are being used by news media or other stakeholders that benefit from making an audience panic in order to drive favorable (for them) narratives.
So whenever you now hear new COVID-19 claims, whether that be positive, negative, racist, agist, etc – do consider where it comes from, and who would benefit from us going crazy.