‘Knockout’ reports illustrated with unrelated footage

A gruesome "trend" of punching strangers for fun is being widely represented by a separate assault, but it plays into racist stereotypes

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.)

I reached out to three local news affiliates that ran the footage to ask about what happened. Two either didn’t return or stopped returning my emails. At a third, an NBC affiliate, I got in touch with a staffer who didn’t want his name used. He explained that his station had supplemented its own Knockout footage with some from another NBC affiliate (it’s common for a network to pull footage from other stations “in the family”).

Generally, he said, if there’s anything other stations “in the family” should know about such footage, there will be a digital note appended to it. This time around, he said, there were no such notes. It was unclear, he said, whether that was due to some sort of software glitch, someone failing to make a note where they should have, or some other explanation. The station has since taken down the footage from its website.

In any case, that’s just one station. Explanations may differ elsewhere. The point is that viewers all over the country are being told a horrifying, visceral story that hasn’t really been checked out yet. Random, pointless violence is real and scary, but that’s no excuse for hyperventilating, especially at a time when black people, particularly young males, feel under siege by racial profiling.

“They’re getting excitement, they’re getting clicks,” a CNN anchor said to psychologist Jeff Gardere in a recent segment on that network, attempting to explain why teens would engage in these random attacks and then post them online. “Jeff, who are these people clicking on these videos?”

“Well these are people who are voyeurs, who want to see this real-life violence,” Gardere answered. “Because let’s face it, with all the violence that we have in the world, that we can see in the media, we’ve been very much desensitized to it. We don’t want to see the made-up stuff anymore, we don’t want to see the fantasy, we don’t want to see the video games. Now we get to see it in real-life and real-time.”

It’s something of a blowhard answer, yes. But it also accurately reflects the addictive, compelling nature of these sorts of stories—even when we don’t know whether they have much of a factual basis.

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Jesse Singal is a 2013-14 Bosch Fellow in Berlin. He can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.