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Media hypes, moral panics, and the ambiguous nature of facts Urban security as discursive formation

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Concepts like media hype and moral panic are often studied through a juxtaposition of public concern and actual ‘reality’. Drawing on my previous studies on moral panics about urban security in Italy, I illustrate how opinion polls and data on crime – the usual indicators for disproportionality – are more the result of changing practices, priorities, and definitions than ‘real life’ indicators. Foucault’s idea of discursive formation helps us to see these supposedly objective indicators as embedded in the same phenomena they are supposed to measure from the outside. Nonetheless, as long as they are conceived as statistics interacting with the forces that mould them, they can be important for the analysis of media hypes and moral panics.
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Peter Vasterman (ed.) From Media Hype to Twitter Storm
From Media Hype
to Twitter Storm
Peter Vasterman (ed.)
News Explosions and
Their Impact on Issues,
Crises and Public Opinion
From Media Hype to Twitter Storm
News Explosions and Their Impact on Issues, Crises, and
Public Opinion
Edited by
Peter Vasterman
Amsterdam University Press
Cover illustration: Alain Delor me, MURMURAT IONS Ephemeral Plast ic Sculptures #2.
www.alaindelorme.com
Cover desig n: Coördesign, Leiden
Lay-out: Crius Group, Hulshout
Amsterdam Universit y Press English-language t itles are distributed in the US and Canada by
the University of Chicago Press.
 978 94 6298 217 8
e- 978 90 4853 210 0
 10.5117/9789462982178
 811
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements 
Preface 
Hans Mathias Kepplinger
Introduction 
Peter Vasterman
I. Theory, concepts, and methodology
1. Media hypes, moral panics, and the ambiguous nature of facts 
Urban security as discursive formation
Marcello Maneri
2. News waves in a changing media landscape 1950-2014 
Wouter van Atteveldt, Nel Ruigrok, Kasper Welbers, and Carina
Jacobi
3. The dynamics of media attention to issues 
Towards standardizing measures, dimensions, and proles
Stefan Geiß
4. Hype, argumentation, and scientic dissemination 
Adam Auch
II. Anatomy of self-reinforcing dynamics: Case studies
5. The mechanisms of media storms 
Anne Hardy
6. Much ado about nothing 
Five media hypes in a comparative perspective
Charlotte Wien
7. From media wave to media tsunami 
The ‘Charter of Values’ debate in Quebec, 2012-2014
Thierr y Giasson, Marie-Michèle Sauvageau, and Colette Brin
8. How a small-scale panic turns into an unstoppable news wave
about mass mugging on the beach 
Gonçalo Pereira Rosa
III. Impact on issues, crises, and public opinion
9. Dynamics of media hype: Interactivity of the media and the
public 
Ik Jae Chung
10. Why and how media storms afect front-line workers 
Scandalized Danish crèches as an example.
Pernille Carlsson and Christian Elmelund-Præstekær
11. Media hypes and public opinion 
Human interest frames and hype fatigue
Audun Be yer and Tine Ustad Figenschou
12. News waves generating attentionscapes 
Opportunity or a waste of public time?
Marianne Paimre and Halliki Harro-Loit
IV. Interactivity: The role of social media
13. Modelling issue-attention dynamics in a hybrid media system 
Annie Waldherr
14. You won’t believe how co-dependent they are 
Or: Media hype and the interaction of news media, social media, and
the user
Vivian Roese
15. From racial hoaxes to media hypes 
Fake news’ real consequences.
Andrea Cerase and Claudia Santoro
16. Reputational damage onTwitter #hijack 
Factors, dynamics, andresponse strategies
forcrowdsourcedcampaigns
Augustine Pang, Jeremiah Icanh Lim Limsico, Lishan Phong,
Bernadette Joy Lopez Lareza, and Sim Yee Low
List of gures and tables 
Index of names 
Index of subjects 
1. Media hypes, moral panics, and the
ambiguous nature of facts
Urban security as discursive formation
Marcello Maneri
Vasterman, Peter (ed.), From Media Hype to Twitter Storm. News Explo-
sions and Their Impact on Issues, Crises, and Public Opinion. Amsterdam
University Press, 2018
: 10.5 117/9789462982178/01
Abstract
Concepts like media hype and moral panic are often studied through a
jux taposition of public concern a nd actual ‘realit y’. Drawing on my prev i-
ous stud ies on moral pa nics about urban sec urity in Ita ly, I illustrate how
opinion polls a nd data on crime – t he usual indic ators for disproport ional-
ity – are more the result of changi ng practices, priorities, and de nitions
than ‘real life’ indicators. Foucault’s idea of discursive formation helps
us to see these supposedly objective indicators as embedded in the sa me
phenomena they are supposed to measure from t he outside. Nonetheles s,
as long as they are conceived as statist ics interacting w ith the forces that
mould them, they can be important for the analysis of media hypes and
moral panics.
Keywords: mora l panic, media hy pe, discur sive formation, ur ban securit y,
disproportion, social concern
Self-reinforcing news waves have always attracted not only scholars’, but
also the public’s attention. The expression ‘media hy pe’ was used in popular
debate before being conceptuali zed as a framework for research ( Vasterman,
2005). Similarly, but in reverse, the concept of ‘moral panic’ (Cohen, 2002
[1972]; Hall et al., 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009 [1994]) was introduced
in scholarly work but ended up being widely used in public debates. This
unrestricted interest in both ideas has not been only benecial. Everyday
concepts are typically loaded with value judgements and these theoretical
models could be suspected of doing the same. Indeed, the concept of moral
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
panic has a lready been criticized on this basis (Waddington, 1986; Garland,
2008). The idea of moral panic, it has been argued, is often used to dismiss
social problems that can be unimportant for the scholar, but which can be
disturbing for the people involved.
Understandably, many authors tried to nd empirical indicators in
order to ground the ‘hype idea’ on a solid base. For example, several studies
focused on scares about problems that eventually produced almost no
damage. Others showed how the emergent alarming phenomenon that
had triggered the panic, on the contrary, was declining. The contrast with
‘objective facts’ is often striking and gives the sensation of a fatal blow to
the fault-nder. However, these external indicators of disproportion are
not so easily available and may be afected by the news waves themselves,
reecting the hype as much as the ‘facts’. A diferent strategy calls for the
investigation of what the media (and their associates) precisely do, studying
the various steps in the process of ampli cation (Kepplinger & Habermeier,
1995; Vasterman, 2005; Wien & Elmelund-Præstekær, 2009; Maneri, 2013a).
Despite its unden iable merits, this approach does not look like a knock-out,
leaving many researchers tempted to go back to the familiar ‘realit y on the
ground’.
As I will try to argue below, without an adequate examination of the
production of this ‘external reality’, i.e. of the construction of the data
on crime, illness, or any other condition, there is a risk of falling into the
ill-conceived alternative between the existence or non-existence of a real
problem out there. Figures are rising? No media hype. They are shrinking?
What media hype! Despite the interest of gures, to rely on them means
to lose the grasp of the sociological nature of hypes and panics. Worse, it
means the danger of natura lizing evidence that is the outcome of both hy pes
and panics. As moral panics and media hy pes tend to emerge in series, and
are generally part of deeper crises, they navigate in an agitated enunciative
eld (Foucault, 1969). The discursive formations that arise from that eld
give shape to new objects that interfere with the ‘facts’ and construct the
world that the researcher would like to measure. The following pages are
an attempt to explain this claim, building on what happened in Italy in
the eld of ‘security’. Thinking of the problems foregrounded by hypes
and panics in terms of discursive formations, where appropriate, helps to
better see the issue of the relationship between facts and representations.
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
Preamble: A ‘rape emergency’ in Rome
At the beginning of 2009, a series of rapes perpetrated in the city of Rome
and its surroundings grabbed unprecedented public attention. While
other similar episodes had not been given much consideration, if they were
reported at all, four sexual assaults reached the front pages of national
newspapers and received a prominent position and sensationalistic cover-
age in prime time TV news. In just a single national newspaper, the widely
read and liberal la Repubblica, these four incidents totalled 308 articles in
three months.
As Figu re 1.1 shows, each new episode was reported with g reater attention
and gave the opportunity for thematically related follow-ups on the previous
ones. The key event that triggered the news wave took place at a party
organized by the municipality of Rome on New Year’s Eve. The circumst ance
and the moment explain the attention paid by the media. The following
incidents, however, were perpetrated in anonymous, isolated areas: an
abandoned periphery in the neighbourhood of Primavalle on 21January, a
secluded road in the Roman satellite town of Guidonia on 23January, and
a hidden corner in Cafarella park on 14February.
Why did they become sensational news? Why in Rome and why in 2009?
Rome’s mayor had been elected three months before with a campaign
Figure 1.1. Coverage of four sexual assaults in la Repubblica, 1Januar y 2009-31March 2009.
Number of ar ticles per day
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
centred on urban security and had already claimed a sharp reduction
in crime with the use of zero-tolerance measures. So he could be easily
attacked by his opponents for his failure. In other words, these episodes
were politically viable, and not only for this reason. More importantly, the
main target in his ght on crime was people from the Roma ethnic group.
Actually, none of the victims had accused a member of the Roma com-
munity of the assault. In the last three aggressions, they had described dark-
skinned men with an Eastern European accent. The police soon directed its
search towa rds people coming from Romani a who, like Roma people, had been
presented as a public danger
1
in recent times. One year before, the homicide
in Rome of a woman by a Romanian citizen (of the Roma ethnic group) had
become a national emergency. The outrage had triggered a polit ical ca mpaign
on both sides of the politica l spectru m about the dangerous ness of people from
Romania . This led to the passing , in one day, of a Legislative Decree that made
possible expulsions of Romanian citizens.
2
In part as a result of this episode,
Roma and Romanians were often confused by t he media and the public. The
Roma/Romanian represented the stereotypical villain and his misconduct
raised the greatest social alarm and deserved the toughest measures.
After three weeks of a search for the culprits, the two initial (Romanian)
suspects of the Cafarella park incident had to be released. But the DNA
found on the victim, interpreted as ‘conrm[ing] that the nationality is
Romanian’,3 was used to justify a narrow investigation: the perpetrators
had to be Romanian. The media emphasis on the suspects’ origin con rms
the same framing: merging victims’ testimonies, popular reaction, and
source statements, newspapers and TV news foregrounded foreign origin
as a source of danger, fear, and anger. Headlines included: ‘Patrols and
baseball bats: Primavalle, it’s open season on Romanians’ (‘Ronde e ma zze da
baseball. Primavalle, è ca ccia ai romeni’, 24January); ‘Guidonia, immigrant
hunting’ (‘Guidonia, caccia agli immigrati, 27January), and ‘Rape, here’s
Romanians’ hideout’ (‘Stupro, ecco il covo dei romeni’, 29January).
As in the previous year, the political reaction was swift and muscular.
Two ministers (from the xenophobic party Lega Nord) demanded castration
for rapists, chemical or surgical. An ‘anti-rape Decree’ passed on 23Febru-
ary 2009,4 strengthening measures against sexual assailants, stalkers and,
yes, immigrants. More interestingly, the spectacular clearance of informal
settlements (often inhabited by Roma families) was widely publicized,
despite the absence of any direct link between Roma and rapists. Then,
after three months, the attention on rape cases gradually faded away. As it
turned out, the rst two episodes had been invented, but that revelation
received little attention.
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
Media hypes and moral panics: Similarities and diferences
The ‘rape emergency’ of 2009 is a typical case of media hype. A key event
triggers media attention and a news theme (Fishman, 1978) is established.
Subsequently, every incident or declaration that can conrm the news
theme is given more attention than usual, starting a consonant news wave;
the latter rises suddenly and fades away gradually. The number of news
reports is not related to the frequency of actual events, but it is the result of
the lowering of t he threshold of newsworthiness, which leads to the massive
reporting of thematically-related episodes, features, and opinions. The wave
is also t he outcome of the interaction of the media with ot her relevant socia l
actors, like politicians, public o cials, grassroots groups, and experts.
At the same time, this ‘emergency’ is also a clear instance of a moral
panic episode, where a condition, or a group of persons
emerges to become de ned as a threat to societal va lues […] its nature is
presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion […], moral barricades
are manned by editors, [] politicians and other right-thinking people
[…] ways of coping are evolved (or more often) resorted to; the condition
then disappears (Cohen, 2002).
The model of moral panic was developed in the elds of Criminology and
Sociology of Deviance, and, with some exceptions (Maneri, 2001, 2013a;
Chritc her, 2003), it dedicates little attent ion to the mechan isms that generate,
propagate, and dissolve a news wave. However, this body of research showed
very efectively how the media can suddenly stir up public indignation
towards a dev iant group in a process of collective stigmatization, declaring
a high level of threat with graphic vocabulary, and leading frequently to
exceptional punitive and preventive measures.
If media hypes amplify the representation of a problem – in that the
public tends to believe that the greater the number of news reports, the
greater the seriousness of the condition (Kepplinger & Habermeier, 1995)
– then when they build on a sense of moral outrage, qualifying as a moral
panic, their social e fects may well be more important. The public, on beha lf
of which the news media speak, is not only worried (as in the case of a
dreaded bird  u pandemic), but also indignant. To the public’s expectation
of protection is added a self-righteous wrath against those who violate our
norms, and a call for punishment of a generalized ‘other’. This emotional
activation can be a powerful social force, one that has been manipulated
in well-known episodes in history.
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
Open issues: Disproportion and public concern
What makes media hypes and moral panics so interesting is their crea-
tive power, their ability to amplify and, especially in the second case, to
mobilize. From the beginning, what attracted much attention was the
disproportion between the nature of the actual threat and the amplitude
of the societal reaction. As disproportion and concern are two central but
controversial ideas in both sociological models, I will dedicate some space
to their examination.
The risk with the idea of disproportion is to take the sociologist’s evalu-
ation of the harm and her concern about it as the reference point for judge-
ments about the correct representation of a social phenomenon, or about
‘reasonable concern’ over a particular condition. This family of critiques,
frequent in the moral panic debate (Waddington, 1986; Watney, 1987; Ungar,
2001; Cornwell & Linders, 2002), led to attempts at nding indicators that
could be used to assess whether the portraya l and the concern about a threat
are disproportionate. Among the indicators proposed by scholars are the
stat istical trend of t he deviant behav iour, the attention paid to the condition
as compared to that paid at another point in t ime, and the exaggeration and
fabrication of  gures. The  rst indicator, the comparison between represen-
tation and ‘hard facts’, is very attractive for its objective avour, but often
di cult to manage. If a moral panic is successful, it will un leash a repressive
tide, in uence the perception of the public, and stimulate the reporting of
the crime, thereby afecting statistics that will eventually measure a blend
of deviant behaviour and reactions to it. In addition, as Young (2011) pointed
out with respect to illega l drug use, the construct ion of a dangerous problem
and its crimina lization can create a secondary harm that is g reater than the
primary harm. For example, it can harden the original deviance so that the
societal reaction can appear proportionate to the present condition, but out
of all proportion if we consider the original situation.
In sum, the productive nature of moral panics may make the idea of ‘ob-
jective’ facts ambiguous, something to which I will return later. Even when
empirical data on deviant behaviour seem to corroborate the researcher’s
perception of disproportion, they should be handled with prudence. In the
‘rape emergency’ in Rome, for example, the prime minister declared that
rapes were decreasing and yet the government had to intervene because
of the clamour. So, we could say that the clamour was disproportionate.
But how reliable are crime statistics that, in the case of the rape crime, are
estimated to record only about nine per cent of actual sex ual assaults? And
what about place, time, and circumst ances: is four rapes in Rome in the  rst
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
two months of the year perpetrated by strangers more than usual, less, or
about the same? Clearly, the claim of a crisis may nd empirical support in
many ways, and in as many ways the sociologist can dismiss it. Objective
data can have very subjective meanings.
The other indicators mentioned before do not make reference to ‘objec-
tively recorded’ deviant behaviour, but instead to what the media do. Do
they adopt alarmist and emotive tones, hyperbole, prominent headlines?
Do they use ad hoc evidence (statistics, summaries of episodes) to convey
a sense of crisis, or do they hysterically demand tough measures? Do they
change their standards of newsworthiness, selecting and highlighting what
in routine news making is, in comparison, downplayed or overlooked? The
analysis of media behaviour and language, together with the examina-
tion of the self-reinforcing news wave, does not make any reference to the
correspondence of the message to ‘objective reality’. While the search for
‘objective facts’ tends to cage the researcher into a forced alternative, i.e.
between saying that something is the source of justied concern or that it
is socially constructed (meaning ‘fake’), when we analyse the media and
other social actors’ reciprocally oriented actions, a rise in dev iant behaviour
may or may not be there. Nevertheless, in bot h cases the ‘problem’ is socially
constructed, i.e. actively shaped. It is precisely t he nature, background, and
consequences of this construction that deserve to be addressed.
Since both media hypes and moral panics revolve around a problem,
it is reasonable to think that there should be somebody concerned about
it. Indeed, Goode and Ben-Yehuda (2009) considered public concern as a
necessary attribute for the researcher in order to speak of a moral panic.
However, both the amount and nature of concern and, above all, whose
concern we are ta lking about is often ta ken for granted, implying deep and
widespread concern among the public or society as a whole. Nevertheless,
the media, public ocials, activists, and public opinion are diferent enti-
ties that may have diverse levels of concern. In addition, worry, outrage,
fear – generally conated in the single concept of concern (or fear) – are
di ferent emotions and indicators developed to measure each of them could
give rise to diferent results.
That the media and moral entrepreneurs in general are concerned is easy
to see: they mobilize. Whether they are genuinely worr ied or instrumenta lly
riding t he issue of the month is another thing , as di cult to investigate as it
is scarcely useful to understand the overall dy namic. But whether and how
the public is concerned is an interesting sociological question, because it is
in its name that troops are rallied, and how much the public is bothered is a
key legitimization in any speech or intervention. Surely enough, the public
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO T WITTER STORM
is claimed to be worried, scared, outraged. The public, as it is explicitly or
implicitly represented in the media and in public statements, is concerned.
But what about what real people actually think?
People could be more or less worried or scared. Some of them surely are,
others are not. In the short term, an important fraction of the public could
be, or could not be, in uenced by the media representation of the events, but
after the wave disappears it could just as well forget about the concerning
events. So is public concern a long-lasting consequence of moral pa nics and
media hypes or just a close and volatile mirror of media waves? Is it even an
independent variable in the process? The role of concern in the dynamic of
a moral panic should always be addressed and so should its temporal trend.
However, in this case as well, objective indicators are less objective than
their usual treatment would suggest. I w ill return to this problem below, but
before doing this it is necessary to introduce a new conceptual framework.
Repeated hypes and panics as discursive formation
An important point to take into account is the fact that often moral panics
appear in series, in connection to fundamental changes in societies that
bring about problems in the social order. The targeted condition and group
relate closely to underly ing anxieties (Cohen, 2002), which are a symptom of
disruptive change (Young, 2009). Since the early 1990s at least, part icularly
in Europe, migrants have assumed the unenviable role of the salient folk
devil. To put it simply, they symbolize what is wrong with so-called globali-
zation. From below, they can be seen as the cause of the end of a perceived
symbolic order. From above, they can provide an occasion to rally popular
consent, by displacing concerns and fears onto them, to delegitimize the
ruling majority or, on the part of the government, to re-legitimize itself.
Repeated moral panics and the residue they leave – in terms of ru mours,
coalitions, priorities, institutional practices, and norms – are the surface
manifestations of power relations that set the conditions of existence, or
‘enunciative eld’, for what Foucault (1969) called a discursive formation.
With this expression, he meant a system of connected discourses conveying
ideas, attitudes, and courses of action that systematically construct their
objects and the worlds of which they speak. In other words, moral panics
are often part of, and instrumental to, a wider, new framework for making
sense of and dealing with something that concerns a given community. The
new discu rsive formation provides patterns of sensitive issues, perspect ives,
concepts, and themes that constrain the range of current truths.
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
As I will claim in the next section, this has happened in Italy (and else-
where) with regard to the discourse on urban security. The discourse on
security became the framework to interpret and handle the presence of a
new immigrant population, establishing a set of priorities, ideas, objects,
and categories that shaped the way social reality could be understood. Re-
tur ning to the issues left open in the moral pan ic debate, in this ‘enunciative
 eld’, public representations and reactions a re not simply ‘disproport ionate’,
and concern and fear are not merely more or less widespread, because it
is the very way society de nes and deals with ‘a new problem’ that is at
stake. All data at that point are deeply embedded in the new discursive
formation, be it in the form of opinion polls or media coverage. Analysis of
the discourse and practices on security claries this point.
The discursive formation on ‘security’ in Italy
Discourse on urban security emerged gradually in Italy. Beginning in the
late 1980s, a series of protests were organized by groups of residents in the
streets against such phenomena as prostitution, drug dea ling, and selling of
merchandise, as well as against the mere presence of settlements of immi-
grants or of Roma. These mobilizations did not receive much consideration
by politicians and the media until, in 1990, the rst comprehensive law
on immigration was discussed in parliament. From then on, immigration
would be a political issue, one that allowed political parties to distinguish
themselves in relation to an important topic.
At this point, protesters were courted by mayors, political parties, and
local ocials, who zealously proposed remedies for problems that the
media were presenting using graphic language and Us-Them rhetoric. Their
solutions were tough and ostentatious. In concert with law enforcement,
they organized police roundups and raids and, in particular, pursued a
policy of eradicat ion with rega rd to immigra nt encampments. These sweeps,
in turn, became news events themselves and con rmed the peril posed by
the individuals involved.
When Italy joined the Schengen agreement in November 1990, European
authorities were ca lling for a strengthening of controls at the Area’s borders.
Illegal immigration was becoming the privileged target of police opera-
tions, both at the frontiers and in areas associated wit h immigrants. Illegal
migrants, or ‘clandestini’ as they were named, were the most convenient
point of intervention in situations that were often in between marginality
and deviance. Not only did their illegal status permit their administrative
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
expulsion for behaviours that often were not crimes, but when they did
commit crimes, this illegality permitted the authorities to proceed without
having to deal with a complicated gathering of judicial evidence (Quassoli,
2013). ‘Clandestini’ soon became the quintessential Other.
For many years, following cycles t hat tended to become most energetic in
proximity to election season, sherif-mayors, rabble-rousing activists, and
other moral entrepreneurs of insecurity expanded their radius of action,
fulminating against ‘illegal street vendors’, ‘trac light window washers’,
‘street pirates’, ‘foreign-born muggers’, and ‘Albanian/Roma/Roma nian rap-
ists’. This hysteric tur moil took place in a period of dramatic  nancia l crises.
Italy had to exit the European Monetary System in 1992 due to repeated
currency attacks from international speculators, and then had to ght hard
to meet the requirements to enter the Euro zone. The unrest was also a
symptom of a legitimization crisis for the political elite: the ‘Tangentopoli
corruption scandal between 1992 and 1994 had wiped out all the parties
that had been governing for thirty-ve years. Going after ‘what the people
want’, in this situation, was seen as an efective means of replacing people’s
fears and contempt with popular support.
Beginning in the second half of the 1990s, what had often been a local
issue became established on a national level, in daily news reports, televi-
sion coverage, and political debate. Individual episodes reported in the
news were connected thematically and transformed into national crisis
situations quickly framed as ‘immigration emergencies.’ Moral panics began
to spread: an ‘invasion’ of ‘fake refugees from Albania’, several ‘rape alarms’,
a ‘homicide emergency’, and so on.
The 2001 electoral campaign opened with the theme of ‘security’. The
posters of the candidates from the two principle parties read: ‘More security
for all’ (Berlusconi, centre-right) and ‘Everyone has the right to be safe. My
duty is to guarantee that right. The law should apply equally to everyone;
stop the tra c of illegals; speed up our system of justice’ (Rutelli, centre-
left). The climax was reached with the begin ning of the 2008 elect ion season.
At that point, representatives of the Democratic Party (centre-left) began to
repeat, whenever possible, such slogans as ‘secur ity is everybody’s business’,
‘security is the fundamental right that underlies all others’, and ‘[security]
isn’t a left-wing or a right-wing idea’, in an attempt to gain ground on a topic
that had become decisive and had always been their opponent’s signature
song.
As Figure 1.2 shows, ‘urban decay ’ and ‘security’ became, in the course of
a few years, an inescapable refrain. In the Corriere della Sera, one of the two
major national newspapers, these terms were employed in twenty to thirty
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
headlines per year in the  rst half of the 1990s, but nearly three times that
amount in the second half of the decade. In t he critical three years between
2007-2009, the incidence of headlines containing these terms was nearly
ten times greater than it had been a decade earlier.5 In the election year
2008, ‘urban decay’ and ‘security’ appeared in 286 headlines – essentially,
once a day with weekends of.
What is no less important is the mutation of the meanings assigned to
these terms. At the beginning of the 1990s, the word ‘security’ (‘sicurezza’)
was used in the context of potential dangers in transportation, public
buildings, and construction sites or was related to the risk of terrorist acts.
‘D ecay ’ (‘degrado’) meanwh ile, had to do with the presence of garbage or the
deterioration of public infrastructure. An extremely diferent meaning of
the term ‘decay’ – one that barely ex isted for the entire preceding decade –
began to ta ke precedence during the second half of the 1990s. In t hat period,
the term ‘decay’ came to be used, almost without exception, to refer to the
degeneration of the urban landscape and the threats to residents’ safety
(security) caused by t he presence of immig rants, Roma, the homeless, drug
addicts and prostitutes, petty criminals, and late-night noise.
The term ‘secu rity’ was a lso transformed, i n a process that took a bit longer
but was quantitatively more relevant. If we consider the ordinances issued
Figure 1.2. Frequency of the words ‘urban decay’ and ‘security’ as problems of petty crime and
immigration in headlines from Corriere della Sera 1992-2010. Absolute values
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
by various city mayors beginning in 2007 (later regulated by a 5August
2008 Ministerial Decree that granted mayors additional powers to provide
for urban security) and the production of legislative measures (so-called
security packages approved in 2008 and 2009), what becomes visible is the
way in which the concept of security, even in a general expansion of the
sphere of repressive legal responses, constitutes a clearly delimited object.
From the entire universe of phenomena that could threaten secur ity – even
in the limited sense of physical safety – the entities that are pinpointed are
clandestini, Roma, and rapists (targeted by national laws), along with drug
dealers, itinerant merchants, trac-light window washers, beggars, the
homeless, squatters, prostitutes, and young people who threaten public de-
corum and distu rb the peace (drawn f rom an impressive number of mayoral
ordinances – at least 508 in a seven-month period, see Cittalia-Fondazione
Anci ricerche, 2009). All of these are categories clearly associated in the
public mind with the presence of immigrants.
To summarize, in the context of a political conjuncture characterized
by crisis, instability, and the establishment’s delegitimization, most
politicians, media, grass-roots groups, and public ocials formed a short
circuit of reciprocal pressures6 that identied immig ration, and associated
phenomena, as the principal threat to security and tranquillity. A set of
new objects – simultaneously abstract and concrete – was created, namely
‘insecurit y’ and ‘decay’, associated with ‘illegals’ and t heir threat to ordinary
people and ‘decorum’. These objects were the coordinates of a ‘surface of
emergence’ (Foucault, 1969) for ‘new’ problems that were put at the centre
of public preoccupations. In order to deal with these newly objecti ed
problems, an impressive apparatus of police operations, law enforcement
reorganizations, legislative and adm inistrative measures was deployed. A ll
these practices ofered sites of visibility through which immigration could
be made sense of and spoken about.
This web of power/knowledge relations imposed undisputable priorities
and correlated ‘realities’, thus establishing a ‘regime of truth’, i.e. rules of
formation for a discursive statement, conditions according to which a state-
ment will be deemed true. A regime of truth operates by rules of exclusion:
it limits the objects that can be spoken of, the position from where one may
speak, who may speak, and how.
As far as objects were regarded, the inclusion in security discourse of a
limited set of ofences and of a rest ricted set of culprits implied the exclusion
of other crimes and perpetrators. The denition of urban security was a
veritable masterpiece in the creation of its own world. Sustained from
the beginning by an array of metaphors – such as the ‘invasion’, ‘ood’,
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
‘assault, or ‘conquest’ of a ‘besieged’ community that had become a ‘hunt-
ing ground’ for petty criminals – the idea of security changed denition
and metaphorical trappings when the image of an unprecedented surge
of street crime had to be abandoned after several years of declining crime
gures. The politicians who admitted that ‘objective insecurity’ could not
be described as an emergency were glad to discover, on the other side of
the ocean, the concept of ‘perceived insecurity ’. If objective reality was not
there, a subjective reality was, and deserved attention. Thus, the problem
was smartly rede ned as ‘demand’ or ‘need’ for ‘security’. A new set of
metaphors was ready for the occasion: ‘An unsettling spectre is haunting
Italy. It is insecurity. Dense and severe enough to border on fear’ (la Repub-
blica, 6November 2007). In the 2000s, ‘social alarm’, ‘fear’, which ‘oods’,
‘spreads like a virus’, is a ‘nightmare’, and ‘holds hostage the country’ was
the new thing.
In this democracy of security, those authorized to speak are ‘the people’
(i.e. what has been constr ucted as public opinion) and those who study them
(accredited scholars, but especially pollsters), who act as spokespersons
for them (the media), who represent or embody them (the political elite),
and who protect them (control agencies). Starting from this community of
victims,7 bearers of a ‘right to security’, the subjects’ positions are clearly
dened: We fear and ask for protection, while They threaten us, ‘bring decay ’,
ofend decorum, and must respect legality. We includes both those who
have the duty to ofer protection and those who ask for it; as the Minister
of the Interior declared on the front page of Corriere della sera, ‘The time
for rmness has come. Let us be free from fear’ (16May 2008). Firmness is
the only legitimate attitude: ‘The best politician, in the  eld of security, is
the one who talks less and starts counting how many uniforms the State
has at its disposal and thinking about how to place them on the battle eld
to win the war for the right to security’ (la Repubblica, 20April 2008).
Disproportion and concern reconsidered
After illust rating how securit y became a discu rsive formation and instituted
a regime of truth in Italy, I would like to return to the issues left open in
the discussion on moral panics and media hypes. As we have seen, the
discourse on security and its correlated enunciative  eld construct the
worlds of which they speak and in which social actors operate. This a fects
the whole organization of society and the way objects are t reated, perceived,
shaped, and counted.
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
The search for objective indicators of disproportion – the rst of the
two questions tackled above – is clearly afected by the changes in this
fact-producing apparatus. In the case of security for example, looking for
empirical indicators would entail using crime gures. The problems with
crime  gures a re too numerous and complex to be dealt with here. Su ce it
to say that the police and the judiciary can adjust their routines, especially
when under pressure, to attribute and record certain types of crime more
generously – when they want to show their diligence – or less generously
– when the aim is to reassure. As well as discretionary, social actors may
be productive. When a condition is perceived as disturbing, both citizens
and the police will be more willing to denounce and to intervene. All of
this afects criminal statistics.
Just how much agencies of control can change their way of operating in
times of moral panic is evident in their own communication strategies. In
1994, a coordinated plan to introduce special squads in Italian cities was
announced. The aim of these forces was to intervene in areas where ‘there
is the need to contain episodes linked to petty crime, to drug dealing, and
to the presence of extracomunitari [non EU citizens] who don’t behave
according to the rules of civil coexistence’ (Corriere della Sera, 28October
1994). In 1999, to make clarify things further, the vice-chief of the police in
Milan announced the creation of a special section that would deal
exclusively with foreign crime. We will have a diferent approach how-
ever: we won’t handle cases by type of crime anymore (a robbery to the
robbery section, a homicide to the homicide section) but by criminal
groups […] We will take care of the Chinese in their totality, or of what
Slavs do, or of the type of crimina l behaviour of Albanians (Corrier e della
Sera, 9May 1999).
In many cities in the 2000s, local police websites began to feature the re-
sponsibilities of their urban securit y departments. They claimed to contend
not only with people charged with the illegal or stigmatized behaviours
associated with ‘urban decay’ – such as residing in unauthorized camps,
begging, illegal street vending, and windshield washing – but also with
inherently problematic people like extracomunitari and the inhabitants
of ‘Roma camps’.
However, moral panics often target deviance that is not yet classi ed as
crime. It is precisely the attempt to bring a behaviour or a group under the
arm of the law that is the purpose of moral entrepreneurs. In these cases,
we do not have discretion or proactivity, but rather the production of new
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
ofences. Consider, as an example, one of the many ordinances issued by
mayors from 2007 onwards, entitled ‘Measures Intended to Combat Urban
Decay: Anti-mendacity’ (Milan, 4November 2008). It reads:
Note having been taken of t he widespread incidence of begging , practiced
in a disagreeable or harassing manner […] [and] the elimination of this
grave da nger and threat to public safety and u rban securit y being consid-
ered necessa ry, especially in light of the clea r ofense such a phenomenon
constitutes to public decency and the grave nuisance it poses to the free
and norma l use of public space, as well as of the escalation of criminalit y
[…] it shall henceforth be illegal […].
This administrative measure takes on board the equation between mar-
ginality and threat to public safety – via ofence to public decency – that
was one of the main features of the discourse on security, creating a new
administrative ofence (with many others). The researcher, here, does not
have statistics on the matter (although they could become available at
this point), but what should she measure? The number of beggars, their
dangerousness, how ma ny nes will be  nally given? What is disproportion
here, if not a matter for social critique?
The typical continuous expa nsion of perceived threats makes the question
‘what should I count?’ less important than the close description of what social
actors do. When discursive formations create new objects, or subsume old
ones under their logic, it is often not the quantity of episodes that matters
but the strateg ies of de nition, which operate, to borrow Foucault’s metaphor
again, as surfaces of emergence. Consider mental illness. Nuts are always the
same, the layman could think. But in the year 2008, in order to deal with the
problem of mental illness, the municipa lity of Milan instituted a ‘Table for the
prevention of social dangerousness’ inviting, beside health authorities, three
di ferent police forces, empowered to administer a T.S .O. (compulsor y mental
treatment) because ‘socia l dangerousness is direc tly linked to cit izens’ need for
and perception of security ’. This shif t in whose is the problem and who should
be protected is a de nitional move that originates from an overall change of
perspect ive. Although there wa s no media hy pe about mental il lness, the wide
array of similar moves is as much a symptom of underlying modications of
social order as a re the hypes and pa nics that feed on the same transform ations.
The battle eld of words is the place where strategic victories take place,
while statistics are, at best, just reserves. Moral entrepreneurs of insecurity
in Italy got it when they gave up counting crimes and insisted on perceived
insecurity instead.
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
Actually, they did not give up counting; they just changed topic. For
opinion polls on ‘fear ’ were the pillars, together with hy pes and panics, upon
which a wide ra nge of actors built the idea of the ood ing of insecurit y. From
the second half of the 1990s to the end of the 2000s, every few months an
opinion poll showing a rise in concern about crime was made public and
widely commented upon. What I want to claim now is that widespread con-
cern (and in general public opinion) is more an object of the new discursive
formation than a genuine social phenomenon, an ‘active’ and independent
ingredient in moral panics and media hypes.
A few headlines can give t he idea of what reading of concern was presented
in the ma instream medi a: ‘Crimes go down but people are af raid’ (Corriere de lla
Sera, 24February 2001); ‘One Italian out of four does not feel safe’ (il Giornale,
4April 2003); ‘The insecurity of the armoured man’ (la Repubblica, 27No-
vember 2005); ‘Half the country is hostage to fear’ (la Repubblica, 6November
2007); ‘Italy’s Fears’ (la Repubblica, 9November 2008). The mass-mediologist
is already thin king that this is the result of the media’s desire to give the news
more impact. But, in fact, the reports of the research institutes who did the
polls conveyed the same idea, sometimes even using the same language.
However, if one looks at the only widely used indicator for which a long-
term trend is available, the curve is actually rather at (Figure 1.3).
How could pollsters see a rise in fea r everywhere? Even in times when t he
trend was decreasing, the most general approach8 was to take a snapshot
and comment on how many people felt ‘fear’, even if many more did not
Figure 1.3. Percentage of people who consider the area where they live ‘much’ or ‘somewhat’ at
risk of crime, 1993-2014
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
‘fear’. For example, the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), in 2010,
commented in its report that ‘individual fear regards a high percentage of
citizens. 28.9 per cent feels little or not at all safe when they go out alone
or it is dark’ (ISTAT, 2010). What about the other 71.1 per cent? Do they feel
safe? They are so disregarded that they are not even presented in the table.
Insecurity, and not condence, is the hype of the decade.
In times of scarcity, one might think that pollsters do not want to disap-
point the media, wh ich are, together with political par ties, the most frequent
sponsors of this kind of study. They could hardly present the media with a
‘no news’  nding like ‘Secur ity? Nothing to obser ve’. But ISTAT, unlike other
organizations that carry out opinion polls, is a public body and receives no
commissions. Nonetheless, its practice is deeply embedded in the power
relations that are part of the discursive formation on security. Be it political
inuence, perceived obligation to study the current social problems, or
incorporation of commonsensical ideas and concepts, research institutes
tend not only to interpret data in accordance w ith hegemonic discourse, but
also to produce it likewise. For instance, beginning in 1999, just when the
hype on urban decay was on the rise, ISTAT star ted asking its inter viewees
periodically if they happened to perceive episodes of ‘social decay’. The list
of episodes includes ‘people who take drugs, deal, or leave syringes on the
ground’, ‘beggars and homeless people’, ‘acts of vandalism against public
property’, and ‘prostitutes looking for clients’. The list matches exactly the
new meaning of urban decay that was appearing in media (and political)
discourse in the second half of the 1990s (Figure 2.2).
The media, grass-roots activists, main political parties, and experts
(including academics, whose publications on urban secu rity closely followed
the trend of public discourse)9 all constructed the same taken-for-granted
idea of insecurity. In this context, indicators of public concern, outrage, or
fear10 can no longer be seen as external empirical data, because the new
paradigm inuences poll commissioning, question framing, respondents’
meaning attribution, and pollsters’ interpretations. Rather than what
people exactly t hink, close examination of these studies revea ls important
processes of denition, or the daily crafting of public opinion.
Concluding remarks
I concluded my preliminary d iscussion of ‘public concern’ by asking whether
it can be seen as a long-lasting consequence of moral panics and media
hypes, as a close and volatile mirror of media waves, or as an independent
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
variable in the process. If we rely on the indicators used in Figures 2.2
and 2.3, we see a 400 per cent increase between the years 2005 and 2007
in the discourse on security – as measured by mentions of the word in
the headlines – and a rise in the share of ‘concerned’ respondents from
29.2 to 36.9 per cent between the years 2005 and 2008. Although the two
measurements are not comparable, the two  gures seem to suggest that
people’s opinions followed in far less dramatic a way the media hype on
security, but did not last.
However, what this case study intends to illustrate is that public con-
cern – ‘insecurity’ in our case study – can be better understood as a new
approach to denition that afects the everyday practices of a number of
interacti ng social actors. Concern is an activ ity (of concerned claim ma kers);
a topic (of media discourse); an assumption or a legitimizing argument (for
politicians); and a new trendy topic (for experts). Above all, concern, fear,
and outrage should be seen as rhetoric, and as a performance whose social
power lies in its being made public. The role of the media in t he rei cation of
concern is of utmost impor tance. Whether they speak as champions of ‘civil
society ’, quote or promote public opinion polls, publish t imely interviews of
concerned people, refer to speci c complaints, petitions, or reactions using
generalizations like ‘the city’, ‘the neighbourhood’, ‘the people’, what the
media do is to const ruct a simulacr um of public opinion, to which politicians
and exper ts promptly respond. Opinion polls could appear to con rm public
fear only because they were part of the regime of truth established within
the discursive formation on security. Concern, in this context, cannot be
distinguished from the new language used to talk about urban security. A
language that promotes fear as a framework for understanding and talking
about a growing array of topics, borrowing a perspective already well-
established in the United States (Glassner, 1999; Altheide, 2002).
Something ver y similar can be said about ‘disproportion’. The discretion,
proactivity, or re-organization of control agencies add to the ination of
the cases that will show up in crime gures. By the same token, the secu-
ritization of the problem brings an expansion of the behaviours classied
under its umbrella, creating new objects or re-framing older ones. In more
general terms, the whole  eld changes under the scope of the new discu rsive
formation: the actual behaviours as wel l as how they are perceived, treated,
and classied. The identication of a threat rests on a shifting ground of
denitions and is a matter of denition itself.
In this situation, the call to examine external empirical indicators in
order to assess the nature of media representations and social reactions – to
establish whether they are reasonable answers or ‘just moral panics’/ ‘the
MEDIA HYPES, MOR AL PANICS, AND THE AMBIGUOUS NATURE OF FACTS 
usual media hypes’ – is extremely dicult to answer, and it can even be
misleading. In social sciences, empirical indicators are used when they
appear, after ca reful examination, to be valid, i.e. to be grounded in the real
phenomenon the researcher wants to obser ve. If they are found to measure
something else, either the indicator or the concept is reformulated. Simi-
larly, in the case of repeated media hypes and moral panics, if the ground
is so mobile that ex ternal indicators seem to measure, more than any thing,
processes of de nition and of attribution, they should be conceived as such.
This should not be seen as a defeat of the scientic enterprise, because
in these cases the enquiry on the nature and the strategies of meaning-
making is the most straightforward and consequent research approach.
The dynamic of news waves and the criteria of selection and framing, the
intensity and symbolic degree of politicians’ and public ocials’ reaction,
the spreading of disaster metaphors and emotive language – all of this is
empirical data that can give an accurate picture of what is going on.
It is tempting to a rgue that thi s progra mme represents a departu re from the
study of rea lity, engaging self-indulgent ly with the deconst ruction of discour se.
But discourse is part of reality and has a deep inuence, as we have seen, on
social practices that afect the lives of many people. In addition, the analysis
of discursive processes does not exclude, and instead must be combined w ith,
the study of external empirical indicators, as long as the latter are seen in
their interaction with the forces that mould them. More investigation needs
to be done in this respect, as opinion polls and ocial statistics are too often
taken at face value, instead of being analysed for what they are: interactive
kinds,
11
theoutcome of social scienticclassications that become material
realities, embedded in social practice and interacting with human objects
and institutions through looping efects.Datarecord while they create, and
are signicantly modi ed according to the denitional practices prevailing
at a given time. Those who collect data, adopting these changing denitions
and their emphases, are part of society themselves and deeply involved in its
power-knowledge relations. This is true for the scholar as well, who can no
longer claim tostay outside reality, looking in. Nevertheless, she can confront
dominant discourses starting from a diferent standpoint. Which has the
advantage of questioning taken for granted ideas, instead of relying on them.
Notes
1. This exposure culminated in the declaration of a State of Emergency in
relation to Roma settlements on 21May 2008.
 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
2. Romania was already part of the EU, so the Decree was illegitimate and was
never converted into a Law.
3. Corriere on line, 5March, quoted in Naletto (2009).
4. The Decree was converted into a Law on 23April 2009.
5. Calculating the sum of the two terms and considering solely those mean-
ings that were tied to immigration as illustrated below.
6. For an analysis of the discursive and social dynamics of that short circuit,
see Maneri (1998).
7. For the central role of victims in contemporary discourse of fear, see Gar-
land (2001), Altheide (2002), and Simon (2008).
8. For a more detailed analysis of opinion polls on security in Italy, see Maneri
(2013b).
9. See Maneri (2013b) on how the cross-correlation between the trend of the
use of the word in the media and of the keyword ‘urban security’ in the
academic database Google Scholar is very close, with the academic trend
lagging the media trend by two to three years. Exactly how scholars talked
about urban security is another question, which would benet from critical
analysis. The scholars who appeared frequently in the media, however,
clearly echoed the dominant framework.
10. The distinction between concern about crime, fear of crime, and opinions
about crime was never considered in mediatized polls and only rarely in
public opinion research reports.
11. I am borrowing the expression introduced by Hacking (2000), although
with a diferent application.
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 FROM MEDIA HYPE TO TWITTER STORM
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About the author
Marcello Maneri is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of
Milano Bicocca where he teaches media and cu ltural sociology. His research
focuses on news and power, racism, public discourse on crime and security,
and moral pan ics. He recently published ‘From media hypes to moral panics:
Theoretical and methodological tools’ (2013), ‘Media discourse on immig ra-
tion. Control practices and the language we live by’ (2011). He is currently
writ ing a book, with Ann Morning, on t he notions of cultu ral and biological
diference in Italy and the United States.
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