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There’s been a big change in how the news media covers sexual assault

A woman carries a sign in solidarity with a rape victim during graduation at Stanford University in 2016. (AFP/Getty Images)

In the past several years, there have been many prominent stories involving sexual assault on college campuses. The case of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky is perhaps the most infamous, and it illustrates a common pattern in news coverage: a focus on specific perpetrators and instances or episodes of assault

But we may be on the verge of a sea change in how campus sexual violence is covered. Our new research shows that coverage has moved away from focusing on individual episodes of assault toward overall trends in assault and themes related to the broader issue. This 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.

Here is what we found.

Our database of media coverage

We looked at media coverage of campus assault cases over time in The Washington Post, the New York Times, and USA Today, analyzing the number, framing and content of the articles.

In particular, we distinguish between two types of frames. One is what social scientists have called “episodic,” which means that media coverage is focused on a specific and highly visible instance or accusation of campus sexual assault.

The other type of frame is called “thematic,” which means that coverage was focused on broader ideas, such as rape culture and victim-blaming, on statistical trends, or on rape or campus rape as a general problem.

As every journalist knows, hooking a story to an individual case can make the story more understandable. The political scientist Lene Aarøe has argued persuasively that episodic framing is usually more successful because such stories catch the reader’s attention. Thematic stories are “boring.”

The graph below shows total number of articles per year, the number of those articles focusing on one of the top three cases of that year (“episodic” stories), as well as the number that were more thematic in their framing. (Our data on media coverage of campus sexual assault, our calculations of assaults per year, and the Department of Education database of campus assaults reported in 2015 are available here.)

Between 1980 and 2013, virtually every spike in attention to the issue was the result of a particular “episode” or instance of campus sexual assault or accusation of assault. These instances often involved athletes or the athletic department, which often garner attention not because they are representative cases but because they have an element of scandal or celebrity.

For example, in 1990, lacrosse team members at St. John’s University were accused of raping a woman in an off-campus residence; the case led to acquittal of all those standing trial. In 2003, 56 female cadets at West Point reported unaddressed sexual assaults over the course of 10 years. This led to sanctions against the victims for socializing with upperclassmen and other rules infractions.

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. About half of all coverage of the issue in that year was coverage of the Duke lacrosse case. And in 2012, 67 percent of all stories about campus rape were specifically about the trial of Sandusky, the Penn State assistant football coach.

Of course, there is good reason for journalists to report on high-profile incidents. But this episodic focus can also create misconceptions — such as that assault is very rare or limited to the hyper-masculine environments of athletic departments or the nation’s military academies.

The major change in news coverage

In 2014, the White House Task Force on Sexual Assault created not only a huge surge of media attention but a shift toward thematic coverage; that followed (and was likely prompted by) a groundbreaking, multi-outlet 2009 series on campus sexual assault by investigative journalist Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity, followed by the development of nationally oriented survivor groups bringing attention to the ubiquity of the issue, not focusing on a particular case. Campus sexual assault was covered extensively but without focusing on a particular assault or accusation of assault.

For example, stories discussed the task force’s report and statistics cited in it, such as the fact that 1 in 5 women reported being sexually assaulted while attending college. (More recently, a 2016 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 21 percent of female students currently in college reported being assaulted in college.)

These surveys are not without their challenges, of course. But even if the precise percentage is hard to measure, there is almost certainly a higher rate of sexual assault than is typically reported by individual colleges and universities themselves. For example, in 2015, there were 5,127 reports of campus rape, according to department statistics, but 11.5 million females attending college, suggesting that over 2 million women are survivors of sexual assault or rape. While there are differences in the definitions used, and many attacks take place off campus, it is clear that reporting is poor.

Another difference in episodic and thematic coverage of campus assault is the focus on the perpetrator and the institution as opposed to the survivors. Episodic coverage often focuses on the trial and institutional proceedings following the assault itself. Institutional interests in avoiding publicity, defense accusations of victim-blaming, and other elements of a criminal trial inevitably emerge in those cases — which is unusual as most assaults are unreported or do not go to trial. Thematic coverage focuses on the sheer prevalence of campus assault, which no one supports, while giving less attention to individual institutions or to accusations that the victim was somehow responsible for the assault. Thematic coverage also gives more attention to survivors than to the accused or perpetrators.

How changing frames can change opinions

These trends in news coverage of campus sexual assault may affect public opinion. Previous research has found, for example, that people exposed to “episodic” coverage of poverty were less likely to support government aid to the poor than people who saw “thematic” coverage focusing on cases of certain types of individual poor people.

Similarly, after the “innocence movement” succeeded in focusing news coverage on the trend in exonerations of individuals on death row, public support for the death penalty declined. In other words, once news coverage showed that exonerations constituted a pattern, not just a few isolated events, this raised concern about the fairness and justice in capital criminal cases.

We may see a similar shift if news coverage of sexual assault continues to focus on broader trends and not specific instances. Paradoxically, looking at the “boring” trends and patterns may help address the problem of campus sexual assault even more than the occasional focus on high-profile cases.

*Corrections: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Duke lacrosse players were acquitted at trial. In fact, charges were dropped before the case went to trial. Further, an earlier version misstated the result of seeing “episodic”  versus “thematic” coverage of poverty in a way that we have corrected.We regret the errors. 

Frank R. Baumgartner is the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Sarah McAdon is a sophomore political science student at UNC-Chapel Hill.