Scholarship on media and children has long noted historical moments when segments of a population and its news media erupt in panicked and morally-charged discussions about the effects of popular culture products—like video games—on children and adolescents (Cohen, 2002; Gilbert, 1986; Lipsitz, 1998; McRobbie, 1994; Scharrer, Weidman, & Bissell, 2003; Spigel, 1998; Springhall, 1998). The present paper offers an update to this literature on moral panic by analyzing the public discourse surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. We argue that reactions to this shooting satisfy the criteria of moral panic outlined by Mazzarella (2007) and Springhall (1999). First, a wave of “exaggerated press coverage” (Mazzarella, 2007, p. 49) targeted video games as a direct cause of the shooting. Next, news media extended their assignment of blame by suggesting that video games had provoked not only Adam Lanza’s actions but also a wide range of delinquent youth behaviors. Eventually, this panicked response resulted in not only public but also governmental concern over the presumably-negative effects of video games on children. Additionally, this paper adds to scholarship on the ritual function of journalism after child-related tragedies (Kitch & Hume, 2008) by assessing the content and form of the news narrative that developed following the shooting. Through a narrative analysis of 380 news articles from American publications, we explain that journalists quickly assembled the chaotic details of the shooting into a familiar and dramatic story-form, complete with a coherent sense of “the underlying factors which lie behind the surfaces of the news story” (Carey, 1986, p. 149). We argue that, in the absence of concrete information about Adam Lanza’s motives, journalists explained the hows and the whys of the shooting by drawing from enduring cultural myths about middle-class childhood, monstrous/deviant youth, and the corrupting influence of video games.
About the presenters
Kathryn J. Beardsley
Kathryn is a PhD student at Temple University. Her research interests include: communication and journalism history, disability studies, race and gender studies, and historical constructions of human difference in mass media.
Thomas is at Temple.