The Western Australian (WA) response to shark attacks, that is the shark cull, is an example of a moral panic. Moral panics are not a new concept to modern society; episodes of panic, anxiety or alarm over numerous forms of perceived threats an element of society. Many studies have been conducted since Stanley Cohen first addressed the concept in 1972 with his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers’ – including that of Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda (Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance). A combination of these two studies results in what Brian Klocke and Glenn Muschert defined as a ‘Hybrid Model’ (Klocke and Muschert, 2010) to determine moral panics in a contemporary world; one where the “widespread concept of moral panic…in recent decades has obscured its conceptual coherence” (Krinsky, 2013).
Perceived threats to the ‘moral fabric of society’ (OED Online, 2014), moral panics (as agreed by most sociologists who have studied and explored the phenomenon) to a great degree take place in the media. Cohen not only emphasized the crucial role of media in the constructions of moral panic, but also established a five-part process to moral panics:
1. Behavior by folk devils is defined as threat to societal values and interests.
2. The threat is depicted in a recognizable dramatic form by the media.
3. A rapid build-up of public concern arises.
4. Authorities, politicians and moral entrepreneurs call for a strong solution to the problem.
5. The panic recedes or results in social and institutional changes. (Krinsky, 2013)
Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda then expanded on Cohen’s concept of moral panics in their study by outlining the elemental characteristics of a moral panic: concern, consensus, hostility, disproportionality and volatility (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009). A combined understanding of these two models enables one to not only understand the concept of a moral panic, but forms a ‘Hybrid Model’ to enable the understanding that the WA response to shark attacks is in fact an example of a moral panic.
Moral panics require a form of scapegoat; an object or person in which public fears and fantasies can be projected. Arnold Hunt argues that it is more likely to be applied to vulnerable figures – such as singles mothers – than aggressive deviants or anti-social groups, such as the Youth Deviants discussed by Cohen in his case study. Being characteristically media driven, the modern day episode of a moral panic is arguably able to spread more efficiently due to the existence of more effective communication channels; including sensationalist mass media. This is evident in the analysis of the WA response to shark attacks in the form of media reports both pre-Shark Cull and post-Shark Cull. Before WA Premier Colin Barnett announced the ‘Shark Mitigation Policy’, numerous reports were made of shark attack victims; most notably that of Chris Boyd whom many identify as the catalyst that encouraged WA...