Moral Panics and Media Myths

James Morrison


An examination of the disturbing rise of 'scrounger-phobia' in the media and society at large, and how this has fuelled popular hostility towards benefit claimants.

Scroungers, spongers, parasites …

These are just are some of the terms that are typically used, with increasing frequency, to describe the most vulnerable in our society, whether they be the sick, the disabled, or the unemployed. Long a popular scapegoat for all manner of social ills, under austerity we’ve seen hostility towards benefit claimants reach new levels of hysteria, with the ‘undeserving poor’ blamed for everything from crime to even rising levels of child abuse.

While the tabloid press has played its role in fuelling this hysteria, the proliferation of social media has added a disturbing new dimension to this process, spreading and reinforcing scare stories, while normalising the perception of poverty as a form of ‘deviancy’ that runs contrary to the neoliberal agenda. Provocative and illuminating, Scroungers explores and analyses the ways in which the poor are portrayed both in print and online, placing these attitudes in a wider breakdown of social trust and community cohesion.

Author Bio

James Morrison is a reader in journalism at Robert Gordon University, as well as a senior examiner for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). Before entering academia he spent over a decade as a staff reporter for newspapers including the Independent on Sunday as well as working as a freelance writer for publications including the Guardian. His previous books include Familiar Strangers, Juvenile Panic and the British Press: The Decline of Social Trust (2016),  Journalism: The Essentials of Writing and Reporting (2015) and Essential Public Affairs for Journalists (2009).

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: Scroungerphobia Revisited: Shirker-Bashing and Feral Freak-Shows
  • 1. Moral Panics, Scapegoating and the Persistence of Pauper Folk-Devils
  • 2. Problem Families and ‘The Workless’: The Rhetorical Roots of Shirkerphobia
  • 3. Framing the Poor: Images of Welfare and Poverty in Today’s Press
  • 4. Deliberating Deservingness: The Public’s Role in Constructing Scroungers
  • 5. Incidental Scroungers: Normalizing Anti-Welfarism in Wider Press Narratives
  • Conclusion: From Division to Unity: A Manifesto for Rebuilding Trust
  • Appendix 1: Framing Analysis Methodology
  • Appendix 2: Sentiment Analysis Methodology


‘Unmasks the motives and mechanisms behind anti-welfare discourses through a forensic analysis of ideological ploys by right-wing politicians, wilfully distorted narratives in traditional media and vitriolic outpourings in social media. A highly original contribution to the sociology of hate.’
Charles Critcher, Swansea University
‘Morrison throws a penetrating light on the politics of the pernicious demonization and othering of social security claimants in the social media age.’
Ruth Lister, Loughborough University (Emeritus)

‘If there was any doubt that scroungerphobia was accidental, Morrison shows us the opposite. This book provides an essential counter-narrative to this hysteria.’
Kayleigh Garthwaite, University of Birmingham

‘The demonising of the poor has long been at the core of British social policy. Morrison’s important study brings this story into the digital age.’
Peter Golding, Northumbria University (Emeritus)

‘Meticulously revisits and dissects press and TV misrepresentation of so-called “shirkers”.’
Dominic Wring, Loughborough University

‘A robust and important contribution to the debate on how the media shapes attitudes towards the poor.’
Mike Berry, Cardiff University


Publication Date: 15 February 2019
332 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781786992130
Hardback: 9781786992147
eBook ePub: 9781786992161
eBook PDF: 9781786992154
eBook Kindle: 9781786992178

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