Specifics & Narrative

The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog has a piece up today—by UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner and one of his students, Sarah McAdon—examining how media coverage of campus sexual assault has changed in recent years. Their general point seems correct: that the mainstream media, at least, and especially the Post and the Times, has devoted less coverage to individual cases and more to broad, impossible-to-verify statistics. Put another way: the media has chosen a narrative (that a campus rape epidemic exists) and haven’t looked too hard at individual cases that might complicate or even contradict the narrative.

To Baumgartner and McAdon, this shift seems like a good thing—a “sea change” that “has the potential to re-frame how the public sees the issue, shifting it from one in which sexual assault appears as an aberration to one that acknowledges the suffering of victims of these crimes even more than does news coverage of occasional cases.”

Armed with such a bias, perhaps it’s unsurprising that their op-ed shows bias itself. First, here’s how the duo describes the lacrosse case: “In 2006, a woman accused members of the Duke lacrosse team of sexual assault, but the three players who went to trial were found not guilty.”

Of course, the three falsely accused students were declared innocent, a far higher standard than a “not guilty” finding—after an investigation by then-North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper. (Cooper is now the state’s Democratic governor.) It’s not clear why Baumgartner and McAdon believe a trial occurred in the lacrosse case, and why they chose to describe an innocence declaration as a not-guilty finding.

A bit later in their op-ed, the duo make the following point, to confirm the prevalence of the problem and support their assertion that universities under-report sexual assaults: “More recently, a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 21 percent of female students currently in college reported being assaulted in college.”

The BJS is a problem for campus rape activists, since the bureau’s major study of the issue—one actually done by BJS employees—shows a far, far lower rate of sexual assault of college students than the Obama administration’s preferred figure. The 2016 study (of nine schools) that Baumgartner and McAdon cite, by contrast, was funded by the BJS, but was not performed by BJS researchers.

It included the following caveat: “Any opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of BJS and the U.S. Department of Justice.” Why, then, did Baumgaertner and McAdon cite the material as a “Bureau of Justice Statistics study”? Perhaps for the same reason they erroneously described the lacrosse case’s resolution.

Focusing on the narrative, rather than the specifics, does have its flaws.

[Update, 12 May, 7.42pm: Earlier today, I contacted the Post corrections desk, noting the two errors in the MonkeyCage item. A few hours later, one correction was made. The erroneous claim that a study that does “not necessarily represent the views of BJS and the U.S. Department of Justice” nonetheless qualifies as a BJS study remains. The claim about a non-existent lacrosse trial was removed, but replaced with this curious wording, with the correction in italics:  “In 2006, a woman accused three members of the Duke lacrosse team of sexual assault, but the charges were dropped when an investigation found no credible evidence.”

Oddly, the correction still refused to admit that the players were declared innocent by the state’s attorney general. But even odder was the added link. The authors linked not to news coverage of Attorney General Cooper’s April 2007 announcement that he was dropping charges because the players were innocent. Instead, they linked to an article published more than eighteen months later, published by the New York Times. Its headline? “North Carolina: Attack Claim Repeated.” The article described publication of false accuser Crystal Mangum’s memoir.

Linking to a lie is an unusual strategy for a “correction.” It seems as if the authors wished to be defiant in their bias.]