Deviancy amplification spiral is a media hype phenomenon defined by media critics as an increasing cycle of reporting on a category of antisocial behavior or other undesirable events. According to theory, the spiral starts with some deviant act. Usually the deviance is criminal but it can also involve lawful acts considered morally repugnant by most of society. The mass media report what they consider to be newsworthy, but the new focus on the issue uncovers hidden or borderline examples which themselves would not have been newsworthy except inasmuch as they confirm the “pattern”.
Reported cases of such deviance are often presented as just “the ones we know about” or “the tip of the iceberg,” an assertion that is nearly impossible to disprove immediately. For a variety of reasons, what is not frightening and would help the public keep a rational perspective (such as statistics showing that the behavior or event is actually less common or harmful than generally believed) tends to be ignored.
As a result, minor problems begin to look serious and rare events begin to seem common. Members of the public are motivated to keep informed on these events. The resulting publicity has potential to increase deviant behavior by glamorizing it or making it seem common or acceptable.
In the next stage, supporters of the theory contend, public concern about crime typically forces the police and the whole law enforcement system to focus more resources on dealing with the specific deviancy than it warrants. Judges and magistrates are under public pressure to deal out harsher sentences. Politicians pass new laws to deal with the perceived threat. All this tends to convince the public that any fear was justified while the media continue to profit by reporting police and other law enforcement activity, which further perpetuates the spiral.
The theory does not contend that moral panics always include the deviancy amplification spiral. In modern times, however, media involvement is usual in any moral panic, making the spiral fairly common.