Rolling Stone recently retracted a 9,000-word story it had published about sexual assault on American college campuses. The story prominently featured a University of Virginia student's brutal account of her gang rape at a school fraternity. The problem was the rape didn't occur as the student said it did, as the Washington Post first discovered.
Now, some commenters fear that Rolling Stone's unverified reporting will further harm rape and assault victims' credibility. There's already evidence that many people dramatically overestimate how common false sexual assault allegations are. In one 1997 investigation, for instance, half of the police officers surveyed believed that 25 percent of rape accusations are false. The real number: between two and 10 percent. Do high-profile "she lied" cases make things worse? (To be clear, Pacific Standard's stance is not that journalists should not investigate others' poor reporting. Instead, we feel Rolling Stone is at fault for launching a verifiably false claim into the national news.)
How often something comes up in the news isn't an indication of how often it happens in life.
Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of social science research around the effect of news accounts of false rape allegations. Perhaps the closest thing we've got is a study, published in the journal Violence Against Women, that examined media coverage of the 2002 sexual assault allegations against basketball star Kobe Bryant. The study found that after reading a news story that perpetuated myths about rape—such as the idea that assault allegations are often false, or that rape victims "ask for it" by being flirtatious—undergraduates were more likely to believe Bryant was not guilty. On the other hand, undergraduates who read a news story that warned readers about myths about rape were less likely than before to believe Bryant was guilty.
The study suggests people are swayed just by seeing a few myths in print. Imagine the effect of a case where there's clear evidence a woman's story about her rape was untrue. "I would hypothesize that exposure to (claims of) false accusations in the media would lead people to overestimate the likelihood of false accusations," Renae Franiuk, a psychologist at Aurora University in Illinois who led the study, wrote in an email to Pacific Standard.
What can the news media do about this troubling tendency? Franiuk's study suggests just a few lines in stories can make a difference: False rape claims are rare; Everybody deserves due process. News outlets are much more likely to report on unusual cases than mundane ones—Rolling Stone, for example, sought to highlight the most extreme campus rape case it had gotten wind of—so keep in mind that how often something comes up in the news isn't an indication of how often it happens in life.