Commentary: Uncritical reporting of one-sided police accounts sparks fear over ‘riot’ at Mall St. Matthews
Correction and author’s note appended.
For the first time in history, a large group of teenagers got unruly at the Mall St. Matthews. At least you might think it was the first time ever by the response of local police, media, and outraged online commenters to an incident Saturday night.
Clearly, something happened. Details remain murky, though, several days later. According to police and their local media stenographers, a “riot” of “1,000-2,000” feral youth forced the closure of the mall. There were unconfirmed reports of shots fired and multiple fights across the million-square-foot facility.
According to eyewitnesses, however, whatever inspired mall administrators and police to close the mall in the first place led to a veritable stampede for the exits, which resulted in confusion, yelling and panic. Nevertheless, no actual injuries, damage, or arrests were reported. Not much of a “riot,” after all.
The lack of any actual devastation didn’t stop the local news media from running with the most sensational coverage they could muster, though. On the 11 p.m. news that night, WHAS reporter Shay McAlister, who had been at the mall “for hours,” repeated the initial police narrative of mass chaos (and the word “riot” several times), but didn’t actually interview any witnesses at the scene. A Courier-Journal report by David Harten from the same night reads like a press release by St. Matthews Police spokesman Dennis McDonald, who is the only person quoted. Harten’s piece does include a tweet from fellow reporter Steve Jones, but he merely describes “groups of kids at every corner.” Terrifying, of course, but not quite a riot.
By Sunday afternoon, WDRB reporter Toni Konz transcribed much of the police radio traffic from the night before, including repeated claims of “shots fired,” which turned out to be false.* The only non-cop eyewitness quoted in the piece described people running and shouting after police or mall employees told customers to leave. Scary, perhaps, but not the “riot” described in the radio traffic or the initial media reports.
The initial narrative of 1,000-2,000 crazed youth rioting at the mall was quickly criticized by other reporters on Twitter and elsewhere. For one, the estimated size of the unruly crowd made little sense. Two thousand is twice as many as one thousand, and either way, thousands of people take up a tremendous amount of space. Certainly the mall can hold a lot of people, but 1,000 (or more) young people all engaged in violence and disruption would certainly have been captured on video or would have caused some sort of damage. Yet the mall opened on time the next day without any need for repair.
Crowd sizes are notoriously difficult for people to estimate. Even expert analyses after big gatherings include error margins as wide as 20 percent. It’s easy to overestimate the number of people at an event or a “riot,” especially when you’re scared or under the stress of trying to control an unruly situation. Or if you’re trying to push a certain narrative.
Officer McDonald, whom local reporters relied upon almost exclusively for their reports of the incident, certainly seized the moment to put a specific spin on events. He criticized irresponsible parents for using “the mall as a babysitter,” and blamed the exacerbation of disturbances on “social media.” He also decried the unprecedented scourge of teenagers loitering in a shopping mall even when they don’t have money to spend, behavior which he says mall management will need to curb.
But you may recall from your own youth being dropped off at the mall by your parents and hanging out for hours even though you had little or no money to spend. I certainly do. It was harmless fun then and still is today.
Despite a nationwide decline, some malls remain prime gathering places for young people. A policy that youth would no longer be welcome in a mall unless they have a focused shopping agenda or are tethered to a chaperone is absurd, not to mention unenforceable. What would mall security need to do? Search the pockets of every entrant for cash, credit cards, and shopping lists? Tail every teen to ensure they remain securely under the helicopter watch of their parents?
Officer McDonald and the local media aren’t actually providing any helpful context or clarity for this incident. And given the fact that many of the youths at the mall were African-American, what they’re doing is feeding a racist narrative that black youths are out of control and out to “harass and confront others.”
Racists who haunt online news comments sections feed on dog whistles like this. Their creepiest fantasies about race wars and enforced segregation play out online for all to see every time an incident like this occurs. To them, our society is collapsing as irredeemable savages destroy our safe white spaces, and only by restricting certain people to their assigned areas of the city (or to prison) can we restore safety and order.
But the mall is, by and large, a safe place. The only other notable disruption over the entire past year was a fight between two white men on Black Friday. Surprisingly, there were no calls to prohibit people like them from loitering in the mall, or for requiring them to be chaperoned. And comparisons of the “riot” last Saturday to the isolated spurt of actual violence in March 2014 are silly.
Too often we allow our irrational fear of each other to dictate the way we shape our policy decisions. We let lazy, uncritical reporting of one-sided police accounts confirm our biases. But the sky is not falling. The city is not crumbling. We don’t need reactionary curbs on the freedom of kids now any more than we did in the late 1990s when the city passed a pointless, mostly unenforced youth curfew.
Teenagers hang out and get unruly sometimes, and sometimes they even get in fights. The collapse of civilization this is not. Our momentary fear should not inspire long-term policy choices that needlessly restrict the freedom of our kids, who, by and large, are still alright.
Correction: The original version of this post stated the events occurred Friday night, when in fact it was Saturday night. It also made an incorrect statement about reporting from WDRB, which is explained further in the author’s note.
*Author’s Note: This piece originally claimed the WDRB piece written by Toni Konz “neglected to include any clarification that no shots were ever confirmed.” This was incorrect. Konz did include, after five quotes from police radio traffic about shots being fired, a brief note that, “Officers on scene reported they didn’t see or hear any shots fired.” Not to be discouraged from furthering the original narrative pushed by officer McDonald, however, WDRB published a follow-up piece titled, “Mall St. Matthews employee:’Too many kids are unsupervised.'” Readers should note that teens have been visiting the mall unsupervised on a daily, mostly incident-free basis since 1962.