Media Coverage of Campus Sexual Assault

Our efforts have focused on tracing the historical diffusion of narratives around campus sexual assault in popular media from 1990-2019. We examined both coverage of feminist efforts for justice, healing, and accountability for campus sexual assault survivors, and the growing focus on concerns about due process for accused perpetrators.

We sought to identify shifts in popular discourse around campus sexual assault, as public opinion represents and informs university responses, legal activism, federal responses, and feminist activism. We examine how narratives were taken up, transformed, and amplified by mainstream media, influencing popular understanding and contributing to subsequent administrative and policy responses. In order to track the changes and shifts described above, we developed specified keyword searches. Using the database Nexis Uni, we collected over 5000 articles and are currently in the process of formatting and cleaning that data for in-depth quantitative and qualitative analysis.

Preliminary findings suggest that while survivor-centered narratives about campus rape culture initially resonated widely and received broad support, they were eclipsed by growing concern around due process protections for the accused. High profile claims of false rape allegations were pivotal in this shift, seemingly providing evidence that universities had gone too far. More comprehensive empirical analysis shows that the impact of these cases on popular understanding – via media representation – was disproportionate to their frequency.

This work contributes to our understanding of how social problems emerge via the news cycle and news saturation. As articles move through lines of production, each has a cadre of producers behind it. These producers include news outlets, private news collection agencies, political organizations, government officials, university public relations offices, and individual journalists. What we have found so far suggests that different constellations of actors are responsible for manufacturing the two narratives that informed our initial data collection. These manufactured narratives and broad distribution ultimately inform policy at multiple levels.

Team Members:

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