Incurable Sex Offenders, Lousy Judges & The Media: Moral Panic Sustenance in the Age of New Media
There is consensus that since the 1990s, we have experienced a spike in public concern over sexual offenders. Analyzing this concern as a moral panic, this paper argues that national television coverage, as it picks up local news, adds heat to the fire by re-naming the villain as an inadequate judicial system. This process helps to sustain a moral panic, while narrowing the available discourse about the nature of appropriate punishment. Drawing upon a well-publicized example of a media event in Vermont, this paper extends the theory of moral panics to add another stage to the process—a stage presented by the advent of cable news programming, the relationship between local and national media, and the explosion of blogs. In order for a panic to sustain over an extended time period, the rhetoric about it must transform. In particular, the claimsmaking about the nature of the problem must evolve. In particular, the panic has evolved from sex offenders as folk devils to an attack on judicial discretion. The development of the outcry over judicial discretion was due, in part, to media distortion of the case. I will thus trace the trajectory of this one case to demonstrate the role of the media in shaping and sustaining the panic.