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Deviancy amplification spiral is a media hype phenomenon defined by media critics as an increasing cycle of reporting on a category of antisocial behavior or other undesirable events. In 1972, Stanley Cohen wrote a book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, whose thesis is that moral panics usually include what he called a deviancy amplification spiral.

According to theory, the spiral starts with some "deviant" act. Usually the deviance is criminal but it can also involve lawful acts considered morally repugnant, like "deviant" sexual behavior.[1] The mass media report what they consider to be newsworthy, but the new focus on the issue uncovers hidden or borderline examples which themselves would not have been newsworthy except inasmuch as they confirm the "pattern". For a variety of reasons, what is not frightening and would help the public keep a rational perspective (such as statistics showing that the behavior or event is actually less common or harmful than generally believed) tends to be ignored.

As a result, minor problems begin to look serious and rare events begin to seem common. Members of the public are motivated to keep informed on these events. The resulting publicity has potential to increase deviant behavior by glamorizing it or making it seem common or acceptable.

In the next stage, supporters of the theory contend, public concern about crime typically forces the police and the whole law enforcement system to focus more resources on dealing with the specific deviancy than it warrants. Judges and magistrates under public pressure deal out harsher sentences. Politicians pass new laws to deal with the perceived threat. All this tends to convince the public that any fear was justified while the media continue to profit by reporting police and other law enforcement activity.

The theory does not contend that moral panics always include the deviancy amplification spiral. In modern times, media involvement is usual in any moral panic.

Eileen Barker asserts that the controversy surrounding certain new religious movements can turn violent in a deviancy amplification spiral. [2]

In Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, Steffens has a chapter "I Make a Crime Wave" detailing how news reporting creates the impression of a crime wave.

See also[]


  1. * Herdt, Gilbert. Moral panics, old and new. American Sexuality Magazine. Accessed on 3-15-07.
  2. Barker, Eileen, Introducing New Religious Movements, Retrieved 22 November 2006.

Further reading[]

  • Cohen, Stanley. Folk devils and moral panics. London: Mac Gibbon and Kee, 1972. ISBN 0-415-26712-9.
  • Course texts for the Open University Course, DD 100.
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