The180·The 180

Beware the clowns: a lesson in moral panic

There were compelling headlines out of South Carolina this week: reports of clowns, lurking in the woods, attempting to lure children. The sort of thing you'd be tempted to share on social media. But Stuart Poyntz warns that media coverage of the clowns may be contributing to a "moral panic."
There are reports of clowns in the woods near South Carolina, though none have been photographed. (Fernando Vergara/AP)
Listen10:52

Something strange is happening in South Carolina.

People are telling the media and police that they've seen sinister clowns near forest, offering children money and luring them into the woods.

The clown sightings have continued for days, but so far, there's no photographic or physical evidence of any malicious clowns.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, media in the United States, Canada, and overseas are running with the story. 
Screen capture from Fox News in the Carolinas, and a story warning of sinister clowns (Screen capture from myfox8.com)

Stuart Poyntz, an Associate Professor in communications at Simon Fraser University, says the media may be contributing to a moral panic. 

A moral panic is a way of telling stories in simple and straightforward ways that try to resolve larger problems. So in this case, children are under threat from an unknown.- Stuarty Poyntz, Simon Fraser University

Poyntz says the story, with its vague sense of reality, plays on people's fears that some universal insidious force is trying to lure or corrupt children. 

To Poyntz, there's a fascinating resonance between the stock images of clowns used in media reports on the story, and a recent political debate in North and South Carolina. Recently, the Carolinas have hosted a debate over transgenderism and access to bathrooms, with bills proposed in each state to prevent people using the bathroom of their choice. A widely shared meme during those debates depicted a man wearing gawdy clothing, smeared makeup, and a wig. It warned of allowing this clown-like man near one's children. 
An image circulated online during political debates over bathroom access in North and South Carolina (Screencapture, Facebook.com)
 

Poyntz says the unproven existence of sinister clowns trying to lure children away, at a time when people are concerned gawdily dressed men will be in the bathroom with their daughters, is an example of how a moral panic can distract people from genuine and complicated issues. 

The societal harms of moral panics are numerous. It does tend to focus our attention on the wrong kind of scapegoats that are meant to explain problems. It also tends to distract us from changes that are ongoing in the lives of those who we care about most.- Stuart Poyntz, Simon Fraser University

As for the media, he'd recommend at least trying to determine whether sinister clowns are actually in the woods of South Carolina before reporting on the story any further.

Press PLAY to listen to the complete interview

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.