Society

Jury: Rolling Stone Gang Rape Story Defamed UVA Dean

| by Zach Cohen

A federal jury decided Nov. 4 that Rolling Stone was responsible for libel, with malice, against a University of Virginia administrator, in a story about a frat house gang rape at the University.

Nicole Eramo sued Rolling Stone for $7.5 million, according to KNSD, and claimed that the article, written by journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely, portrayed her as a villain.

The article claimed that Eramo discouraged the alleged rape victim, identified in the November 2014 story as "Jackie," from reporting the incident to police. 

Erdely acted with actual malice, the jury said, on six claims, including four statements to media outlets after the story was published, claiming that Eramo had a "nonreaction" when Jackie told her that two other women were also gang-raped at the same fraternity. 

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The trial lasted 16 days, involved the testimony of 12 witnesses, 11 hours of video statements, and over 180 pieces of evidence, reports The Washington Post.

A Washington Post investigation found falsehoods in Jackie's testimony. No one at the frat matched the name or description she gave for the ringleader of her assault. She shared a photo of her alleged attacker, who turned out to be someone she knew from high school who attended school in a different state. 

Tom Clare, one of Eramo's lawyers, said that the Rolling Stone article was "a story of a journalistic failure that was avoidable," and that his client was "collateral damage in a quest for sensational journalism."

Rolling Stone has since redacted the article, but currently hosts a report from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism documenting what went wrong.

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According to the report, Erdely was convinced that Jackie was a reliable source because of the vividness and consistency with which she recalled the details of her alleged attack. 

Jackie also initially seemed like a credible source because Emily Renda, a university employee who works on sexual assault issues on campus, put them in touch. Renda had also referred to Jackie's allegations while testifying before a Senate committee. 

Jackie refused to give up the name of one of her attackers, apparently afraid of potential retaliation. This was a red flag for Erdely, but she, her editors, and Rolling Stone fact checkers were convinced of the story's accuracy. 

After the story was published, Jackie gave Erdely a name, off the record. But she was unsure how to spell his last name. "An alarm bell went off in my head," Erdely said. Following up on the lead, she was unable to verify that the named individual was a member of the fraternity, worked at the pool as Jackie claimed, or had any other connection to Jackie. 

Erdely called her editor, Sean Woods, who "was just stunned." After he "raced into the office" to figure out what to do, Rolling Stone retracted the story. "It was the worst day of my life," Woods said. 

In his closing statement to the federal jury, The Washington Post reports, Clare said, "It had all the elements of a perfect story. And when something appears too perfect, it usually is."

Sources: KNSD, The Washington Post, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism via Rolling Stone / Photo credit: slashvee/Flickr

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