The reaction of local media and police to an incident Saturday that led to the early closure of Mall St. Matthews is drawing harsh criticism.
On the day after Christmas, reports began circulating that crowds of teenagers were causing trouble at the mall. St. Matthews Police Officer Dennis McDonald later said his department was receiving reports of numerous fights, and the surge in requests for assistance quickly overwhelmed the six officers stationed at the mall on an “off-duty assignment.”
The officers requested additional support from Jeffersontown Police, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and Louisville Metro Police, he said. In all, nearly 50 officers responded.
The large-scale law enforcement response was soon coupled with an equally outsized response from the local news media. Local TV reporters breathlessly described a chaotic scene. Some called the incident a “riot,” repeating a term provided by St. Matthews Police. Nearly every media outlet that reported on the incident used a crowd estimate from St. Matthews Police that there were between “1,000 and 2,000” teens involved.
The reaction to those reports, as seen in online comments and on social media, has focused on complaints about out-of-control youths to reforming mall policies to assumptions about the teens’ race and parental involvement.
But few facts have been confirmed since Saturday evening, and the details that have emerged paint a picture of a scary — yes — but much smaller and less destructive incident than first described.
And experts at the intersection of law enforcement and the news media say the two institutions appear to have colluded to overhype the Mall St. Matthews incident without facts in hand.
The information WFPL confirmed on Monday lends little credence to the initial reports of a “riot.”
Soon after the incident, McDonald, the St. Matthews Police spokesman, said as many as 2,000 young people were at the mall. He reiterated that tally Monday afternoon in an interview with WFPL News.
But just hours later, he told The Courier-Journal that number “was obviously a guess” and backed off his initial estimate, saying the number was likely an overlap of numerous reports from officers at the scene who saw from 25 to 100 teens in groups.
Also, scant firsthand video of the incident has surfaced. What has appeared on social media hasn’t shown any acts of violence.
“Most of the social media we’re seeing show people running,” McDonald said.
McDonald also said the video that does exist shows little criminal activity — no assaults, no “serious crimes being committed,” he said. Mall St. Matthews does not have video from inside the mall, he said.
No arrests were made Saturday, McDonald confirmed on Monday, adding that making arrests for “something relatively minor” would have hindered the officers on the scene from executing their mission, which was to disperse the crowd.
Also, no thefts or damage were reported to police.
A few injuries were reported, though no one was transported to the hospital. McDonald said those injuries are likely the result of people being knocked to the ground as others ran by.
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Still, the word “riot” in media reports stood untested for two days, as did the supposed scenes of unruly teens and multiple brawls. News broadcasts about the incident led with provocative banners, such as WHAS-11’s “Riots, Fights, Reports of Shots Fired.”
Guillermo Avila-Saaverdra is an assistant professor of communications at Salem State University in Massachusetts and an expert on the relationship of media and society. He characterized the news reports from Saturday night on the incident as overhyped and lacking in journalistic standards.
“The red flags are obvious,” he said.
Avila-Saaverdra pointed to the lack of sourcing in initial reports and the absence of skepticism directed at the police response.
“I think this is a case of a disproportionate police response that local news outlets exploited to attract viewers,” he said.
For evidence of the disproportionate response, he cited the lack of casualties, injuries and arrests.
“Obviously, the media should avoid sensationalizing or hyping news events based on dubious reports and questionable evidence,” he said.
But, he said, it is not uncommon for local news outlets to sensationalize stories, as they’re in constant ratings battles with other stations.
“To that effect, they used buzzwords that trigger concern in what I assume is their largely white, suburban audience,” he said. “This behavior is, to say the least, irresponsible.”
Avila-Saaverdra said the initial reporting has allowed commenters to flood online news stories and give the whole story “an ugly racial bias.”
The comments, some alluding to race and others displaying outright racism, have seeped into the narrative, which Kishonna Gray finds troubling. An assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies, Gray said much of the reaction is the result of how the story was framed by media at the outset.
Gray, whose research focuses on the intersection of marginalized identities —such as race, class, gender and sexuality — and media, said the problem largely lies with how media reports information they receive from police.
The police description of the crowd size gave the news media the ability to sensationalize and broadcast terms such as “riot” — which are meant to frighten audiences and garner online pageviews, she said.
“Media essentially situates black bodies as unruly, as disorderly. That’s their frame of reference right there,” she said. “They don’t know how to frame black bodies in a neutral light. Media always has painted them in a very much criminal light. They can’t really frame it in any other way.”
Gray said outlets are looking for people to click on their stories and watch their newscasts, and society has an ingrained need to categorize people.
“We need to categorize so we can start making assumptions about people to see if we are associated with them or are they the other,” she said. “It’s rooted in racial thinking.”
She said reports that many involved in the incident used public transportation to get to the mall provides the framing that “they’re outsiders coming in.”
“That’s a reference point for people’s minds to already situate these people as some kind of dangerous other, and they’re coming into our space and violating our space and they have to be punished,” she said. “That’s very problematic.”
Gray said McDonald’s initial dubbing of the event as a “riot” was unfair to the kids who were involved and likely led to what she called the targeted reports of the evening.
“If it was all white kids that were doing that, I really wonder if McDonald would have framed it in that light,” she said.
And she said the idea that McDonald would suggest policies for the mall to adopt — such as his call to disallow certain youth in the mall without a parent — is “ridiculous.”
“Who are they actually going to be looking at first,” she said. “They’re going to be looking at mobs of black people.”