The woman is defenseless, strolling down the street with a pocketbook over her shoulder. She has no idea that she’s about to be brutally attacked. The man, who is black, runs up behind her, rears his right arm back and to the side, and strikes her viciously in the head. She falls to the ground, apparently out cold, while he runs away.
“New at 11 o’clock now, an alarming new wave of attacks across the nation has arrived here in our area,” reads Leon Harris, an anchor at WJLA in Washington, DC, as the footage plays during a broadcast earlier this month. Other grainy videos follow, all allegedly connected to a “game” called “Knockout,” “Point ‘em Out, Knock ‘em Out,” or “One Hitter Quitter.” The game is as simple as it is horrifying: Teenagers attack someone randomly in the hopes of knocking them out. They don’t even take anything.
It’s a scary, eminently media-friendly story, based as it is in gruesome footage of innocent victims being attacked by out-of-control teens. But there are signs that this story is not being reported carefully and risks sparking unnecessary panic, some of it race-driven. Foremost among them is the fact that the footage of the man running up behind the woman, which is appearing just about everywhere, has nothing to do with Knockout.
Rather, as one Reddit commenter pointed out, it’s footage of a 35-year-old man attacking a woman in East London. It was a random attack, yes, but quotes from the man suggest some combination of substance abuse and mental illness may have been to blame. He was not a teenager partaking in some viral trend in the US. Given the number of stations that have replayed this unrelated footage, it’s worth asking whether those covering Knockout need to be engaging in a bit more discretion, especially to avoid contributing to an ongoing media narrative of young black men as dangerous.
It’s important to note that there is in fact evidence to support the existence of a teen activity called Knockout—it’s not as though this is a media-manufactured hoax. Ralph Eric Santiago, a 46-year-old homeless man, was killed in a September 10 attack in Hoboken that police say was Knockout-related. A WILX segment on Knockout in Lansing, MI, included an interview with a kid who was shot by his would-be victim, and he explained that he had engaged in the activity a number of times previously.
So yes, it exists. But is it a “trend”? It is on the rise? How many teens actually participate? We have no idea, no hard facts, and for now this vacuum of real information is being filled in by clip after scary clip played on repeat. On careful observation, many of the clips don’t even seem to reflect the game as it’s being described. Yes, in some cases kids simply attack a random passerby. In other clips, many of them pulled straight from video sites—where context goes to die—the victim is already facing the aggressors, rather than caught fully unawares. While there’s no doubt the attacks are brutal, in these cases we have no idea what precipitated them. If news stations couldn’t even get the country in which one of these clips took place correct, why should we trust them to fully vet fuzzy video pulled from the internet?
These distinctions matter, because American news viewers are being faced with a cavalcade of images of young black men attacking people, and are in many cases being told these images are related and part of some sort of rising, dangerous trend. These stories don’t treat these as attacks as random or disconnected, because where’s the hook in that? Rather, we’re told, as NBC News put it, that “Police around the nation are on high alert for a new and dangerous trend among urban teenagers.” And yet when The New York Times looked for actual evidence of a Knockout trend, it came away with almost no real evidence. The Daily Beast’s Jamelle Bouie also looked into this story, and after checking out national crime statistics and researching past Knockout-related panics, he came away similarly unimpressed.
Given that we live in a climate in which innocent, unarmed young people of color like Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, and Renisha McBride have been shot to death under circumstances that point to a strong possibility of racial bias, outlets need to understand the potential consequences of presenting images with minimal context and research. (It’s also worth pointing out that this story isn’t new—the far-right website The American Thinker was writing about Knockout back in 2011.)