Deviance Amplification and How the Media Perpetuates It

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Deviance amplification is a process, often performed by the mass media, in which the extent and seriousness of deviant behavior is exaggerated. The effect is to create a greater awareness and interest in deviance which results in more deviance being uncovered, giving the impression that the initial exaggeration was actually a true representation.

Leslie T. Wilkins originally reported on the process of deviant amplification in 1964 but it was popularized by Stanely Cohen's book Folk Devils and Moral Panic, published in 1972.

What Is Deviant Behavior?

Deviant behavior is a broad term because it covers anything that goes against social norms. This could mean anything from minor crimes like graffiti to more serious crimes like robbery. Adolescent deviant behavior is often a source of deviance amplification. Local news will sometimes report on a something like a "new teen drinking game," implying it is a popular trend instead of the actions of one group. This kind of reporting can sometimes start the trends they were reporting on although each new act will add credence to the initial report.             

Deviant Amplification Process

Deviant amplification usually starts when one act that is either illegal or against social morals that wouldn't normally be worth of media attention becomes newsworthy. The incident is reported on as being part of a pattern.

Once an incident becomes the focus of the media, other similar stories that normally wouldn't make the news fall under this new media focus and become newsworthy. This begins to create the pattern that was initially reported on. The reports can also make the action seem cool or socially acceptable, leading to more people to try it, which reinforces the pattern. It can be hard to prove when deviant amplification is happening because each new event seems to validate the initial claim. 

Sometimes citizens will pressure law enforcement and government to take action against the perceived deviant threat. This can mean anything from the passage of new laws to harsher punishments and sentences on existing laws. This pressure from the citizens often requires law enforcement to put more resources into an issue that it actually warrants. One of the main problems with deviance amplification is that it makes a problem seem much larger than it is. Which in the process can help create a problem where there was none. Deviance amplification can be part of a moral panic but they do not always cause them. 

This hyper focus on minor issues can also cause communities to miss larger issues they need to be focusing attention and resources on. It can make social issues harder to solve because all of the focus is going to an event that was artificially created. The deviant amplification process can also cause certain social groups to be discriminated against if the behavior is tied to that group.