Today, I want to talk about moral panics. Moral panics about different kinds of crime almost always lead to vast expansion of the machinery of state repression, whether they be this absolutely bizarre “crime wave” reported by the press in Victorian England or contemporary U.S. moral panics like the 1980s “crack babies,” the 1990s “super predators,” or the absurd 2021-2022 “organized retail theft.” They can also be acute creations of a particular news moment, such as when local and national media did 309 articles about a single Walgreen’s shoplifting incident in 2021.
So, how do moral panics happen?
I. Moral panics are creations of elites in journalism, politics, and the punishment bureaucracy
Because I have little else to do when I’m not in court other than play with cats, I have a lot of conversations with people about crime.
Many of my conversations are with my clients, community organizers we work with, and survivors of violence. But I also try to have conversations with elites who are in a position to shape how the punishment bureaucracy functions, including journalists, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, politicians, philanthropists, researchers, lobbyists, non-profit employees, professors, etc. Because of how much propaganda there is in our culture about which social harms policymakers should treat urgently and what solutions to those problems we take seriously, it’s important to talk as much as possible about how we should think about holistic safety in order to counter some of the pathologies of mainstream propaganda.
One of many notable things from these conversations is how focused many professional class elites are, at any given moment, on their belief that there is some sort of “crime wave” happening. Professional elites are routinely in a state of panic about crime. (By this I mean a narrow range of crimes for which police arrest mostly poor people.) I have experienced this in city after city. I have also experienced it nationally, especially since 2020, when many journalists and politicians I spoke with invoked concepts like a “surge” in retail theft, “rampant” crime on public transit, crime generally being “out of control,” or fomenting a panic about “carjacking” in D.C. to get Congress to block new D.C. revisions of its code.
This state of moral panic is so self-evident to these professional news consumers that a common refrain among them is to accuse anyone raising skepticism about the moral panic du jour of being an “elitist” who is “out of touch” with the most marginalized communities. I have had so many conversations, both over email and in person, with fancy people who have never meaningfully participated in fighting state repression of vulnerable people accusing me of not caring about vulnerable people because I have questioned their urgent prioritizaion of a particular extant news narrative about crime. This is actually a go-to move for elite pundits: anyone not reaffirming the narrative that crime by poor people is “out of control” at any given moment—and anyone not responding to that problem with proposals of more prisons and police—doesn’t care about poor communities or communities of color.
The certainty of many elites in their perceptions about crime and safety reminds me of a passage from the best book on the subject of propaganda that I’ve ever read. It’s a 1950s book called Propaganda by Jacques Ellul, and I could not recommend it more highly. The introduction to the English translation of the book by another scholar explains why Ellul believed “intellectuals” to be:
“virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda, for three reasons: 1) they absorb the largest amount of secondhand, unverifiable information; 2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important question of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; 3) they consider themselves capable of “judging for themselves.” They literally need propaganda.”
There is a lot to say about journalists and other professional class elites panicking about the morally dangerous behavior of poor people. Two preliminary points are important always to state, and so I say them again before getting to today’s main attraction:
The subjective view that there is an urgent “crime wave” is often accompanied by an irrational and contrary-to-the-evidence assertion that the “wave” or “surge” must mean we should tweak some kind of policy within the punishment bureaucracy. In fact, the “wave” or “surge” is often specifically manufactured by self-interested groups and complicit journalists precisely to have some political impact, whether it be the recall election of a DA whose policies they don’t like or blocking a bail reform bill or fear-mongering about slight shifts in budgets of police and prisons. It is utterly common, therefore, for the media to connect, without any empirical evidence, “surges” in crime with something like bail reform, defunding police, lower sentences, or slightly different prosecutorial charging policies. I see this news commentary every day, and the mere juxtaposition of these policy tweaks with statements about huge shifts in “crime” is itself like climate science denial. All of it is nonsense: these little tweaks in punishment policy pale in comparison as factors determining police-reported “crime” to root causes like: inequality, poverty, access to health care, early childhood education, housing, vibrant community programs, the number of guns manufactured, general alienation and disconnection of people in our contemporary society, etc…
Professional elites rarely experience a moral panic or subjective feeling of a “crime wave” or “surge” about crimes like wage theft, water pollution, foreclosure fraud, tax evasion, air pollution, building safety code violations, prison guard brutality, illegal police spying, political corruption, sexual assault of migrant detainees, or other crimes that are rampant and cause objectively higher levels of harm. They seem only to obsess urgently about some crimes committed by some people, and this obsession is usually not correlated with any objective assessment of overall threat to well-being. I have written about how the criminal punishment bureaucracy largely ignores the crimes of powerful people while ruthlessly and selectively targeting poor and marginalized people, and I have written many times in this newsletter with a wide range of examples about how media coverage of crime distorts what we see as urgent. I recommend reading those pieces.
II. Why does the news constructing a continuous stream of moral panics matter?
In addition to the more qualitative problems I have discussed in the linked pieces above with our society’s mass delusions about what the greatest threats to safety are and how to solve them, we can see immediate, striking effects of the constant cycle of news coverage about “crime waves” and “crime surges” in the categories of crime for which police arrest mostly the poor.
One consequence of the views of elites on crime waves—particularly elites who control the curation of anecdote that passes for corporate daily news—is that the U.S. public has become dizzyingly uninformed. Take a look at the chart below. You’ll see that people consistently believe that crime is rising in the U.S.
These numbers are similar dating back to 2002—every year since then most people believed crime was up. But, in that 20-year period, actual police-recorded crime went down almost every year. Most people were wrong. But it’s actually much more interesting than that. When asked about crime in their own area, people were much more accurate. So, when relying more on their own social networks and first-hand experiences, people are less uninformed than when relying solely on secondhand information through the media.
This is interesting background, but here in this post, I want to share with you a fantastic and relatively obscure story about how these moral panics come to be produced.
Background on moral panics
The seminal work on this subject is Stuart Hall’s 1978 book Policing the Crisis, in which some of the leading social theorists in modern English history dissected how the British police, courts, and news media manufactured a moral panic about “mugging” that resulted in increased punishment and prosecution of Black immigrant youth from British colonies. Even though the book was written 45 years ago, it is such a profound, necessary examination of the topic that I am constantly recommending to any journalist serious about understanding the broader forces that shape what they think about as public safety news. It’s so good, and so much better than anything I could ever write, that I can’t believe there are people who cover crime without having read it!
But another, much shorter and fun account is Mark Fishman's 1980 book, Manufacturing the News, which was recommended to me by journalism professor Jay Rosen. Because the book is online, I am able to reproduce a key passage below that tells one anecdote from Fishman’s ethnographic research inside newsrooms. If you are a journalist, please read it. Fishman describes in delightful detail how a group of newsrooms can simply manufacture a “crime wave” out of whole cloth, even with everyone acting in good faith:
I hope this was useful. The passage combines several themes from my recent writing, including why it is so important that police spend massive amounts of public money on public relations infrastructure, which has significantly increased since Fishman observed the utility to police of their PR teams in 1976. The passage also illustrates the groupthink that I have identified in contemporary newsrooms, and how that groupthink leads to objectively bizarre conceptions of what things about the world should be a news story and how those news stories should be told. It also captures well some elements of the social, cultural, bureaucratic, and economic forces that lead journalists to focus on certain kinds of crimes and to ignore others.
People’s perceptions of crime in their general area are also far from accurate and subject to various forms of manipulation. This is especially true with the rise of apps and group discussion forums like NextDoor and Citizen, whose business model is to create engagement by driving a culture of fear.
Just like the now popular fallacy, that cities across America have "defunded the police" which is why there's this "crime wave." Pointing out that police funding has actually increased is like forcing cats to look in a mirror. They don't want to hear it and change the subject as soon as you start pulling out statistics. Also, when you point out that "defunding" actually means transferring the money back to social services which are better positioned to solve issues like public mental health, homelessness, or inequality (I tell clients not to call 911 in case of emergency because all you will get is cops), they completely tune out. It appears elites hate two things: good news and solutions to problems.
Thank you for your work, and for continuing to document the widening dichotomy between reality and perception.