The Australian Newspaper Outrage Cycle

Media editor of The Australian, Sharri Markson, has produced an article titled ‘Activism a threat to journalism‘. In it she draws on sources to argue that ‘activist journalism academics’ on ‘social media’ are a threat to journalism. She paraphrases her boss and Australian newspaper editor, Chris Mitchell:

Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, said the greatest threat to journalism was not the internet or governments and press councils trying to limit free speech, but the rise of the activist journalist over the past 25 years and the privileging of the views of activist groups over the views of the wider community.

Worse than the figure of the ‘activist journalist’ is the ‘modern journalism academic’. Here Markson introduces a Mitchell quote so as describe the ‘modern journalism academic’ as someone with opinions on political issues:

Mr Mitchell, who has edited newspapers for more than 20 years, said media academics who were vocal about ideological issues on social media were part of the problem.

“This is at the heart of my disdain for modern journalism academics. And anyone who watches their Twitter feeds as I do will know I am correct,’’ he said.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalism students and those starting their career in the industry, follow media academics Jenna Price, Wendy Bacon and journalist Margo Kingston on Twitter. All are opinionated on political issues.

Through its Media section the Australian newspaper is running a small-scale ‘moral panic’ about the loss of efficacy of legacy media outlets, like the print-based Australian newspaper. Most of the people who work at the Australian newspaper have been to university and would’ve more than likely come across the concept of a moral panic. Even if they haven’t, as savvy media operators that should be familiar with the concept.

The concept of the ‘moral panic’ once belonged to the academic discipline of sociology, but has now largely leaked into everyday language. A moral panic is a diagnostic tool used to understand how fears and anxieties experienced by social group often about social change is projected onto and becomes fixated around what is called a ‘folk devil’.

A ‘folk devil’ is a social figure who may be represented by actual people, but functions to gather fear and anxiety. I have a book chapter on the folk devil figure of the ‘hoon’. There are actual ‘hoons’ who are a road safety issue, but the hoon moral panics that swept across Australia 10 years ago were completely out of proportion to the actual risk presented by hoons. The figure of the hoon represented fears and anxieties about how young people use public space particularly in areas with high retiree and tourist populations.

Clearly, the ‘activist journalist’ and ‘modern journalism academic’ are the folk devil figures. What fears and anxieties do ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ represent? ‘Social media’ is used as a collective term in Markson’s piece to describe technologies and social practices that threaten not only the commercial existence of the Australian newspaper, but also its existential purpose. As Crikey reported last week, the Australian newspaper is losing money hand over fist, but I think this ongoing effort to attack ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ indicates that the anxiety has a greater purchase than mere commercial imperatives in the Australian newspaper workplace.

Sharri 2
An example of ‘print enthusiast’ Sharri Markson’s advocacy work on social media.

Markson has been a vocal activist for print-based publication and it is clear from her advocacy work on social media that she is a ‘print media’ enthusiast. Indeed, Markson and Mitchell could be described as what are the ‘moral entrepreneurs‘ of the ‘moral panic’ in this particular example. A ‘moral entrepreneur’ is a person or group of people who advocate and bring attention to a particular issue for the purposes of trying to effect change. In traditional moral panic theory this is largely local politicians who try to effect legislative change to compensate for the social changes that triggered the moral panic in the first place.

The Australian newspaper’s ongoing response to the perceived existential threat of ‘social media’ (as an inaccurate collective term to describe far more complex and longer term shifts in the media industry) is a useful example for thinking about the cyclical character of these outbursts. They are small-scale moral panics because they never really spread beyond a limited number of moral entrepreneurs. The latest round is merely another example of the media-based culture wars that began with the so-called ‘media wars‘ in the late 1990s. Again, journalism academics were central in the conflict over what counted as ‘journalism’ and/or ‘news’. More recently, the Australian newspaper attacked journalism programs and their graduates.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’

The concept of a ‘moral panic’ is a bit clunky and doesn’t really capture the cyclical character of these ideological battles over perceived existential threats. Creator of the ‘moral panic’ concept, Stanley Cohen, included some critical comments about the concept as a revised introduction to the 2002 third edition of his iconic Folk Devils and Moral Panics book. About the possibility of a “permanent moral panic” Cohen writes:

A panic, be defintion, is self-limiting, temporary and spasmodic, a splutter of rage which burns itself out. Every now and then speeches, TV documentaries, trials, parliamentary debates, headlines and editorials cluster into the peculiar mode of managing information and expressing indignation that we call a moral panic. Each one may draw on the same stratum of political morality and cultural unease and — much like Foucault’s micro-systems of power — have a similar logic and internal rhythm. Successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties. But each appeal is a sleight of hand, magic without a magician. (xxx)

A useful model for understanding the cyclical character of the relation between anxiety (or what we call ‘affect’), greater media attention (or what we call, after Foucault, ‘visibility’) and an exaggerated sense of social norms and expectations is Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’ model.


It is not a ‘theoretical’ or even a ‘scientific’ tool; rather, it serves as a kind of rule of thumb about the reception of technological change for the purposes of creating business intelligence. New technologies tend to be hyped so take this into account when making business decisions about risks of investment. (Each year I use the ‘Hype Cycle’ to introduce my third year unit on technological change ; the way it represents technology is useful for understanding social relations and technology beyond technology being an ‘object’.) There is something similar going on with the Australian newspaper’s constant preoccupation with other journalists and in particular the role of journalism academics in society. Rather than the giddy ‘hype’ of the tech press and enthusiasts about technological change, the Australian newspaper’s cycle is organised around ‘outrage’. The Australian newspaper’s ‘Outrage Cycle’ is a useful way to frame how Western societies constantly mobilise to engage with perceived existential threats. The actual curve of the ‘Hype CYcle’ itself is less important than the cyclical character of trigger and response, which is also apparent in ‘moral panic’ theory:

OutrageCycle 2014

I’ve changed the ‘zones’ of the Hype Cycle. ‘Maturity’ did not seem like the most appropriate measure of the X-axis, so I changed it to ‘time’ which Gartner also sometimes uses. I’ve made a table for ease of reference:

Hype Cycle

Outrage Cycle

Technology Trigger

Existential Threat

Peak of Inflated Expectations

Peak of Confected Outrage

Trough of Disillusionment

Trough of Realism

Slope of Enlightenment

Slope of Conservatism

Plateau of Productivity

Plateau of Social Norms


Existential threat: In the case of the Australian newspaper, the existential threat is not so much activist journalists and modern journalism academics, but the apparent dire commercial position of the newspaper and the accelerated decline in social importance of a national newspaper. The world is changing around the newspaper and it currently survives because of cross-funding arrangements from other sections of News Corp. The moral entrepreneurs in this case are fighting for the very existence of ‘print’ and the institutional social relations that ‘print’ once enjoyed. A second example of this involves ‘online piracy’, which serves as a perceived existential threat to the current composition of media distribution companies.

Peak of Confected Outrage: It is unclear who is actually outraged besides employees of News Corp about so-called ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ in general. There are specific cases, just like with ‘moral panics’, where specific people have triggered the ire of some social groups. They serve as representative ‘folk devils’ for an entire social identity. Similarly, ‘pirates’ serve as an example of ‘bad internet users’ who are part of the disruptions of the legacy media industry. There is a more sophisticated point to be made about reporting on ‘outrage’ and other affective states like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’. They become their own sources of newsworthiness.

Trough of Realism: In the case of the Australian newspaper, this is where legacy media advocates face up to the unfortunate reality of the shifting media industry.  It is not clear to me, at least in this example, that this will actually happen. (Perhaps after the Australian newspaper folds?) In terms of ‘online piracy’ facing reality includes companies like Foxtel currently working to create online client versions of their pay TV business. It is basically at this point that proponents have to ‘face reality’.

Slope of Conservatism: In Gartner’s original version, technologies become adopted and companies learn how to use them appropriately. In the ‘Outrage Cycle’ the Slope of Conservatism is ironically named as it signals social change. In some ways, Markson’s advocacy of ‘print’ is a bad example of this. A better example is the way sports fans learn how to adapt to the commodification of broadcast sporting events.

Plateau of Social Norms: The constant change in social values and relations that have characterised Western societies for the last 300 years continues unabated, indicated by the increasing ‘liberalisation’ of normative social values, but societies often pass thresholds of organisational composition where certain norms are dominant. Heterosexual patriarchal social values and racist social values were normative up until the postwar period in Australia, then they began a very slow process of changing and we are still in the midst of these shifts. Most people who work in the media industry are learning to operate in the new norms that characterise contemporary expectations regarding the production, distribution/access and consumption of media and journalistic content. Recent examples of this include the popularity of the ‘home theatre’ as the most recent evolution of domestic cinema culture that become part of mass popular cultures with the VCR.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a Business Model

In our editorial introduction to the recent ‘Trolling’ special issue of Fibreculture Journal, my colleagues Jason Wilson, Christian McCrea and I wrote:

Major media corporations and tech giants have become bogged down in nymwars, post-hoc jerry-rigging and outright comment bans as they attempt to erase conflict around perenially divisive topics. All the while, as media companies are all too happy to trade on clickbait and outrage, there’s a suspicion that they have appropriated and mobilised the figure of the troll in order to constrain a new outpouring of political speech. Trolling has perhaps displaced pornography as the obscenity which underwrites the demand that the Internet be brought under control.

Jason in particular has emphasised the normative character of particular kinds of outrage. On the topic of a recent research report report from the respected Pew Centre about the normative effect of social media, Jason wrote for the Guardian ‘newspaper’:

In the midst of social media’s perpetual flurries of outrage, we teach one another that the range of acceptable opinion is small, that we are individually responsible for comporting ourselves within these limits, and that the negative consequences are unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic. Accepting cues – from media, government and other authorities – about the dangers of incivility and extremism, we monitor each other’s conduct, ensuring that it doesn’t cross any arbitrary lines.

We can read the perpetual Outrage Cycle of the Australian newspaper as a machine for the production of new normative social values. Without being subsidised by other business areas of the News Corp enterprise, the Australian newspaper would be out of business, so to say that the Australian will inevitably fail is to miss the point that it is already in a state of constant ‘fail’. Unless someone thinks that the Australian newspaper will actually become profitable again (and will do so while its editor-in-chief and media editor are advocating for ‘print’), the social function of the Australian newspaper is not to make money as a commercial journalistic enterprise but to serve a social role that reinforce what its employees perceive to be normative social values.

The Australian newspaper and other News Corp print-based products seemed to be currently organised around using this ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a business model. Isolate a perceived existential threat (religion, class difference, education, etc.) and then represent this on the front page of newspapers in such a way as to create feelings of fear, anxiety and outrage in the community. We know that they do not aim to represent and report on this fear, anxiety and outrage, because otherwise their front pages would be full of articles about readers of their own newspapers.