Update (31 Jan, 2120 EST): Numerous edits to the USA Today story were made over the course of the day, and the final paragraph (quoted at the end of this post) addressing lower overall rates of military sexual assault is no longer part of the story. The version of the story discussed in this post is available here.

A few hours ago USA Today published this story alleging that:

Incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies spiked nearly 50 percent during the last school year despite years of focus on the issue and declarations of zero-tolerance, according to results of a survey conducted by the Pentagon.

The number of students reporting unwanted sexual contact totaled 747 during the 2017-18 academic year compared with 507 in 2015-16, according to anonymous surveys of cadets and midshipmen. Unwanted sexual contact ranges from groping to rape.

(emphasis added). All the usual suspects reacted in their customary fashion. For example, Congresswoman Speier (D-CA) is quoted in the story as saying, “Clearly what is being done to address sexual assault in our academies is not only not working, it has allowed assault rates to increase a staggering 47 percent.” Additionally, Don Christensen – a retired Air Force judge advocate and President of the advocacy group Protect our Defenders – is quoted as saying, “Clearly there’s a cultural problem at the academies.”

Wait just one minute.

The DoD conducts an annual assessment of the Military Service Academies to determine the effectiveness of its sexual assault prevention programs, as required by Section 532 of the FY 2007 NDAA. The assessment is called the Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies, and it is conducted on a Academic Program Year basis. The USA Today story appears to be based on the results of the most recent assessment, for Academic Program Year 2017-2018. The report is available on the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office website, and it disproves the USA Today story.

Let’s start with the top-line assertion in the USA Today story that:

Incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies spiked nearly 50 percent during the last school year. . .

That’s false. Totally fake news.

At the outset, while an increase from 507 (in 2015-2016) to 747 (in 2017-2018) is, indeed, nearly a 50% increase, that timespan is two school years, not one. But that’s not what makes the assertion fake news. Rather, it’s fake news because the underling number is an estimate.

Last year’s report (for Academic Program Year 2016-2017) explained the 507 number as follows:

The Department tracks prevalence estimates over time and compares them to reports received as one of its measures of progress. As illustrated in Exhibit 5, estimated rates of past-year USC [unwanted sexual contact], measured in APY 15-16, indicate that about 507 cadets and midshipmen indicated experiencing some form of USC during the APY, suggesting that the 64 reports received last year involved about 13% of the estimated number of victimized cadets and midshipmen.

App. D. at 9 (all emphasis added) (direct link). Put differently, the 507 number was an estimate of an indication of an experience of some form of unwanted sexual contact, which is not the same thing as USA Today’s reported “incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies.”

The 747 number is also just an estimate of an indication of an experience, as explained by the current (Academic Program Year 2017-2018) report:

Results from the 2018 SAGR estimate that about 747 cadets/midshipmen experienced some form of USC in the past-year, compared to 92 reports of sexual assault received by DoD from cadets/midshipmen for an incident that occurred during military Service.

2017-2018 report, Appendix D at 11 (emphasis in original) (direct link). A footnote adds:

SAGR prevalence is only an estimation. DoD uses these estimates to measure the scope of sexual assault and the degree of underreporting at each academy.

2017-2018 report, Appendix D at 11 n.10 (double emphasis in original) (direct link). That is also not the same thing as USA Today’s reported “incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies.”

SAGR – by the way – refers to the Service Academy Gender Relations Survey, which is a survey conducted every other year. It was conducted in 2016 and in 2018. The 2016 report is available here, and the 2018 report is available here. The 2016 report explained the results with this language:

It should also be noted that all results are based on self-reported data provided by survey respondents. Accordingly, results describe experiences that respondents indicated experiencing but may not be interpreted as evidence that an event(s) occurred. All references to “behaviors experienced” should be interpreted as “behaviors reportedly experienced.”

2016 Report at viii (direct link (loads slowly)). That is also not the same thing as USA Today’s reported “incidents of sexual assault at U.S. military academies.”

I can’t find the 747 number in the 2018 SAGR report, but the 2016 SAGR report did include the 507 number, with this explanation:

Across all DoD Academies, 4.0% of students (women and men combined) indicated they experienced unwanted sexual contact since June 2015. This represents about 1 in 8 women (12.2%) and 1 in 60 men (1.7%). Based on the 9,376 eligible respondents from a census of 12,564 students, a constructed 95 percent confidence interval ranges from 485 to 529 students, with a point estimate of 507 students who indicated experiencing unwanted sexual contact in the past academic program year (APY).

2016 Report at x (direct link (loads slowly)). You can draw your own conclusions about those percentages, but USA Today’s report of “507 [incidents of sexual assault] in 2015-16” is fake news.

The USA Today story does, however, include some real news about military sexual assault. The very last paragraph explains:

There has been some progress: rates of sexual assault for active duty men and women decreased between 2016 and 2014 and are at the lowest level since 2006, according to the Pentagon.

(emphasis added).

13 Responses to “USA Today publishes fake news story about sexual assault at the military academies”

  1. JAGSfortytwo says:

    I hate the constant cries of fake news.  Factually incorrect sure.  Improperly sourced sure.  Without proper context sure. But by labeling news as “fake” dismisses any positive points an article might have.  Additionally, have you sent this to USA Today so they can correct their article?  It only remains “fake” as long as we don’t challenge it.

  2. Former DC says:

    42: Respectfully disagree. This is the classic definition of fake news. It is pretty apparent that this article is a designed hit piece, intended to push a certain agenda, with a complete knowing and willing rewrite of the facts. As any of us who have a college degree can tell you, that sort of dishonesty will author disciplined. Turn something in to a court like this, and it is called lack of candor to the court, usually with disastrous results to the author’s law license. When it is the media, we call it fake news. Enough said. 

  3. Former4402 says:

    It is interesting to read the survey questions found in Appendix A. For the first half of the survey, questions are prefaced with “Since 2017, did someone from your Academy” do x, y, or z. When the “Unwanted Sexual Behaviors” portion of the survey begins at question 48, that language is dropped and the question goes to “any” unwanted contact, not just that contact initiated by someone from an Academy. The survey allows for a respondent to answer “yes/no” to five different types of unwanted sexual contact (questions 48(a)-(e)). Question 49 then asks the respondent to estimate how many times total they had those unwanted experiences in 2017. Question 53 then asks them to choose the one experience they deem as the most serious and then in question 57, identify a certain class that the perpetrator belonged to (same Academy class, one year senior, junior, staff, etc). Notably, two selections in 57 are “Non-DOD affiliated” and “Unknown.”
    Using this survey methodology to conclude that unwanted sexual conduct at military academies is increasing is problematic. The surveyors, Gillibrand, and POD are attributing the stats to the Academy, where they might not appropriately be directed. Say a respondent submitted that they received unwanted sexual behavior 10 times in 2017. Imagine 9 of the times were unwanted sexual contact in the form of a butt grab by a townie at a local night club. Another of those times was a butt/breast grab by a classmate. If the respondent finds the butt grab by the classmate the most egregious, then they are putting classmate down for question 57. There is now no identification of the 90% of the incidents that had absolutely nothing to do with the respondent’s association with the military or a service academy.

  4. Vulture says:

    It may have been overdone, but it looks like the NYT did the same thing.
    NYT Story

  5. stewie says:

    Or maybe this is the same problem we’ve had the whole time of the military being unbelievably inattentive and sloppy to how it presents information to the public? For some reason, the military does not seem to want to get real specific on numbers…separating out lower level from higher level data very clearly for example.
    Yes, the media ran with something that wasn’t accurate enough, but that doesn’t make it fake news, it just means we put out and the media ran with vague information. Seems like there’s equal blame on both sides when that happens.

  6. Truth says:

    Let’s discuss the RAND surveys conducted over the last 8 years. 
    Those completing the surveys are Anonymous, which I completely understand the need for annominity if people are completing the surveys ‘truthfully’. But several years ago, after the questions themselves grew more detailed in descriptions, people were conducting the surveys with a group of people in their work centers laughing at the more elaborate invasive questions, adding some of the more ‘grotesque details’ as if it was a joke. Questions such as: Without your consent: Has someone inserted something foreign in your genitalia? (Obviously, adlibbing, as I don’t have the questions in front of me from 2013-15 timeframe). 
    Not to mention the survey questions filtering/summations used to group the false narratives that ‘certain special interest groups’ may want leadership and the public to believe. (Perfect examples submitted above by Former4402)
    Also, if a small percentage takes the survey and they assume the rest of the population would have answered it the same way, they magically slice/dive/multiply it by the rest of the population, there is no way that this is accurate data. That is simply padding data to get the numbers they want.  Each survey should be considered on it’s own merit, the rest of the population are not considered, if it’s not mandatory then you can’t get an accurate number of the the alleged issue. This isn’t Family Feud where “the top 5 answers are on the board” not everything fits in that box. 
    Lastly, and most importantly. It is well known that the survey links had/have been shared outside the active duty military communities. So going back to my first point, although annominity is important, who knows who is REALLY completing these surveys? This in itself needs investigated.
    1. They need to check IP addresses
    2. Whether the IP addresses are even close to the locations the surveys are being reported from, let alone, even close to a military installation in general.
    3. Look into whether a person can complete more than one survey. If YES, then relook at number 1 & 2 again.

  7. Ed says:

    Congresswoman Spier is now heading the subcommittee on military personnel. Significant but not hopeful

  8. Aimee says:

    I’m sorry if someone else already posted this, but what strikes me most about this article is that, just because the number of reports increases, that doesn’t mean that the number if incidents increases.  I could be that the sexual assault awareness education is making people feel more comfortable about reporting, and therefore the number of reports went up.  This is not necessarily indicative of the number of assaults themselves, and everyone should be careful if equating the two.  Just one person’s two cents.

  9. Former SJA says:

    DoD deserves the bad press and demonizing it receives from this report–not because sexual assaults at the Academies are becoming notably more prevalent (this report doesn’t prove that), but because DoD continues to prove it can’t get it’s act together in analyzing and accurately reporting on the issue.  DoD SAPRO hasn’t learned anything since it first triggered a media and congressional frenzy by over-reporting incident prevalence based on voodoo science and poorly constructed and sourced statistics gleaned through the WGRA.  This report doesn’t focus on actual reporting trends among cadets and midshipmen for sexual assault.  Instead, the report relies on subjective, unverified, extrapolated “statistics” and presents as fact an incidence figure based on a self-defined term (unwanted sexual contact) that isn’t based on the military’s (or any other jurisdiction’s, for that matter) criminal code.  No one should be surprised that persistent DoD critics will pounce once again on this report and its “statistics.”  What is surprising is that DoD has ignored repeated recommendations to revise and improve its analysis and learned nothing from the floggings it continues to receive for DoD SAPRO’s work and publications.

  10. sure okay says:

    @JAGSfortytwo  Its fake news for all those reasons you just said: FACTUALLY INCORRECT, IMPROPERLY SOURCED, WITHOUT CONTEXT.  How much more fake do you need it to be?

  11. stewie says:

    So if news is simply incorrect, that makes it “fake news?” Pretty silly standard.

  12. Concerned Defender says:

    Thank you for exposing this indeed FAKE NEWS.  So fake, they retracted and changed it.  Hard to argue it’s not fake when the fake-ness and falsity is changed/removed.
    The agenda is clear.  Water down the “definition” to include “unwanted sexual contact” will increase reporting by widening the definition, which is what exactly?  Someone you didn’t like asked you on a date or tried to kiss you at the end of a bad date, so that’s now included??  Then “estimate” figures out of almost whole cloth.  And of course “reports” go up with canvas harassing interviews and nonstop questions compelling people to “admit” “victimization” (tied of course with nice promotions, exoneration, kid gloves, better grades, and the accouterments of “victim-hood.”  Then news hit pieces exaggerate the estimates over 2 school periods, lie about it, and totally mischaracterize USC to “sexual assault.”  To the casual public, it then looks like an epidemic of rapists running around in the military when in reality, rape and sex assault is quite rare and universally prosecuted with a heavy hand. 
    It is agenda driven propaganda, aka “fake news” without correct dates, figures, sources, context, etc.  Pure shite as my Scottish lads would exclaim.  And it’s so pervasive that it seeps into society at large.
    I agree with formerSJA that the DoD deserves some of the heat for this.  All these “estimates” and baloney and the succumbing to Congress pressure to frenzied “do something!” cries has been a cure worse than the disease.  The DoD should have dug in with real facts and figures, held the line, and pushed back about females in combat roles and “we told you so” attitude.  Nope, instead they gave and gave some more and the entire services have suffered, as well as the image of the DoD, and innocent men ruined over this overblown nonsense. 

  13. CDR X says:

    I agree with most of what you say, Concerned Defender.  We’ve done this to ourselves by failing to make clear to the public what the problem is – and isn’t.  Our current process treats every butt grab like it’s a rape case.  The solution is to empower our commanders to investigate all but the most egregious cases and take prompt corrective action, but they’re terrified of being second-guessed by the chain of command.  Instead, we have a system that is slow, unaccountable, and skewed toward accusers because commanders have every incentive to be hands-off until someone tells them what to do.
    I don’t agree that this has any bearing on whether or not women should serve in combat roles, or in the armed forces generally.  “We told you so” isn’t going to solve anything.  That ship has sailed, my friend.