Why do high-profile campus rape stories keep falling apart?

So here’s my question: Given that there are so many legitimate incidents to choose from, why have so many high-profile cases ultimately fallen apart?

If you were to ask an average person today to name a prominent story about rape on college campuses, odds are pretty good that among the top four or five replies would be the Duke lacrosse case, the Rolling Stone cover story about Jackie and the University of Virginia, Columbia University “mattress girl” Emma Sulkowicz and one of the stories from “The Hunting Ground.” Yet in all of these stories, either the accusations were later shown to be a complete fabrication or at least serious questions were raised about them.


In other words, there’s a strong desire to find the “emblematic” case, one that checks off all the right boxes — a sympathetic victim, a privileged attacker, an indifferent administration, and so on. Real life doesn’t usually produce such clean-cut cases. So there may be an urge to bend stories to make them more sympathetic, more universal and more likely to generate outrage. Probably more to the point, this desire to seek out the perfect poster case may also make activists and their sympathizers in the press more credulous and less willing to ask questions when a story that appears to fit the bill does come along, as Jackie’s story did. For activists and sympathetic journalists alike, there’s a strong incentive to want to see a promising story (i.e. “promising” in terms of its potential to generate change) in the most favorable light, and with that, a proclivity to overlook the red flags.

Another possibility merges these two points: The alleged victims most eager to generate publicity for their stories may be the those most likely to say what activists or journalists in search of a good story want to hear. This means the stories most likely to be heard are those most in need of skepticism — and those least likely to get it. That’s a conflation of incentives that’s almost guaranteed to produce bad results.


Stephen By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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