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

That is the question posed in the headline to a column by Radley Balko in the Washington Post.

To come up with an answer, Balko begins with the saga of a documentary on campus rape.

The documentary is “The Hunting Ground,” which claims that most campus rapes are committed by serial predators and that when rapes are reported the college administration typically does nothing. The film has been screened at the White House for legislators and praised by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who shows up on campuses to tout the film.

Emily Yoffe of Slate and others have dissected the film and found it wanting. Yoffe in particular looked into the record of the rape allegation made by Kamilah Willingham, who was interviewed on screen.  Yoffe writes:

What the evidence (including Willingham’s own testimony) shows is often dramatically at odds with the account presented in the film.

Willingham’s story is not an illustration of a sexual predator allowed to run loose by self-interested administrators. The record shows that what happened that night was precisely the kind of spontaneous, drunken encounter that administrators who deal with campus sexual assault accusations say is typical. (The filmmakers, who favor David Lisak’s poorly substantiated position that our college campuses are rife with serial rapists, reject the suggestion that such encounters are the source of many sexual assault allegations.) Nor is Willingham’s story an example of official indifference. Harvard did not ignore her complaints; the school thoroughly investigated them. And because of her allegations, the law school education of her alleged assailant has been halted for the past four years.

The Willingham allegations do indeed seem quite shakey. It seems to be a good example of a rape story that has fallen apart. Balko suggests several reasons why we’ve seen so many high-profile rape cases—most notably the Rolling Stone magazine story of a gang rape at the University of Virginia—turn out to be wrong.

It could be, he suggests, that anti-rape activists aren’t sophisticated at vetting allegations before they go public, or perhaps it is because the cases that explode are the ones that stick in our minds.

Then Balko posits a third reason:

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.