How the 'Knockout' Game Let Media Outlets Flex Their Muscles

The "knockout" game - specifically, whether not it exists as an epidemic - has spurred a media frenzy, with believers claiming the trend is cause for alarm, and skeptics deriding the coverage as proliferation of a trend that doesn’t exist.

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Two weeks ago, a 78-year-old Jewish woman was punched in the face in Midwood, Brooklyn, by a young, black man. A similar incident occurred on Monday, and an unknown number of similar incidents have prompted an NYPD investigation into whether a attacks on Jewish victims constitute hate crimes — and whether they are actually part of a disturbing new trend, called the “knockout” game.

Naturally, the knockout game — specifically, whether not it exists as an epidemic — has spurred a media frenzy, with believers claiming the trend is cause for alarm, and skeptics deriding the coverage as proliferation of yet another trend that doesn't exist.

At best, they say, the believers are naive and hysterical; at worst, racists following a systematic trend of pointing to isolated incidents of crimes committed by young black men as justification for harmful generalizations. The believers, for their part, say the denial is typical of the left-wing media, who prefer politically correct sensibilities to the truth. Neither side has much to go on.

The New York Times cited Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as saying his team is “trying to determine whether or not this is a real phenomenon.” He adds, “I mean, yes, something like this can happen. But we would like to have people come forward and give us any information they have.” That's actually a pretty reasonable reaction, considering the difficulty in determining criminal trends; especially in the age of 24-hour news coverage, where the copycat effect creates attackers inspired by the ‘trend’ to capitalize on the media’s branding.

Still, media outlets leading the discussion on how to classify the knockout game seem to have taken a definitive stance. The New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica opened his oped with the sentence: “Sometimes an act of terror can be as simple as this: Some punk suddenly trying to put you down and put you out because of ‘knockout,’ described as a game even if it seems to be anything but,” and NBC News led a story on the subject with the line; “Police around the nation are on high alert for a new and dangerous trend among urban teenagers: the ‘knockout game,’ in which teens knock out unsuspecting strangers for the fun of it."

Yet, almost before the trend pieces could reach enough people to start a nationwide panic, the counterpoints came in to quash the whole thing. Slate, to debunk such reports, ran a piece with the headline “Sorry, Right-Wing Media: The ‘Knockout Game’ Trend Is a Myth,” and the Daily Beast matched it for candor with the title: “Guess What? The ‘Knockout Game’ is America’s latest phony panic.”

As is often the case, speculative coverage tends to say more about each respective news outlet than the story. Believers focus on the anecdotal evidence in each case, while debunkers draw on their broad strokes. Neither is an especially effective method of fact-finding. So the narrative breaks down to conservatives versus progressives, realists versus optimists, bigots versus defenders, and so on, and so on. This debate, it seems, has fallen across fairly defined media lines, with traditional, local outlets jumping to call the attacks a trend and younger blogs and online outfits shouting them down. The debate can be seen as a means for each side to flex their bona fides - old media plays to its demographic, zeroes in on human interest, and uses dramatic video coverage to flesh out a thin story. New media also plays to its demographic, and rightly points to dog whistles in conservative coverage, while toying with levels of snark to fine-tune an institutional voice.

So far, neither side has mentioned the external conditions that could help parse whether the incidents could reasonably be part of an actual crime pattern, like the mayoral overhaul, income inequality, a homelessness crisis, and other factors that shift the day-to-day life of city dwellers. And neither has fully examined the implications or repercussions for victims and attackers if the knockout incidents are found to be real hate crimesUntil the knockout games fade away or solidify into an actual threat, we may all benefit from some radio silence.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.