CHARLOTTESVILLE — A federal court jury decided Friday that a Rolling Stone journalist defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in a 2014 magazine article about sexual assault on campus that included a debunked account of a fraternity gang rape.
The 10-member jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation, with actual malice, in the case brought by Nicole Eramo, a U-Va. administrator who oversaw sexual violence cases at the time of the article’s publication. The jury also found the magazine and its parent company, Wenner Media, responsible for defaming Eramo, who has said her life’s work helping sexual assault victims was devastated as a result of Rolling Stone’s article and its aftermath.
The lawsuit centered on Erdely’s 9,000-word article titled “A Rape on Campus,” which appeared online in late November 2014 and on newsstands in the magazine’s December 2014 issue. Opening with a graphic depiction of a fraternity gang rape, the story caused an immediate sensation at a time of heightened awareness of campus sexual assault, going viral online and reverberating through the U-Va. community.
But within days of the article’s publication, key elements of the account fell apart under scrutiny, including the narrative’s shocking allegation of a fraternity gang rape. The magazine eventually retracted the story in April 2015, and Eramo’s lawsuit came a month later, alleging that the magazine’s portrayal of her as callous and dismissive of rape reports on campus was untrue and unfair.
The jurors reached a verdict Friday after deliberating across three days. Eramo has asked for $7.5 million in damages but now, following the verdict, can argue for a different amount. The argument for damages is scheduled to begin Monday.
Regardless of potential damages, the verdict showed the jury’s willingness to slam a major media outlet for the impact of getting a story wrong. Originally hailed as a brave triumph of reporting for its raw accounts of rape and attempts at bringing accountability to a storied public university, the article led to protests of the U-Va. administration, vandalism of a campus fraternity and outrage among activists trying to prevent sexual assault. Once its flaws were exposed, the article’s deeper message of the effects of campus rape — a pervasive national problem — was lost amid the allegations of shoddy reporting.
In a statement after the verdict, Rolling Stone said that the magazine, for nearly 50 years, has aimed to produce journalism “with the highest reporting and ethical standards, and with a humanistic point of view,” noting that Erdely’s story attempted “to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses.”
“In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again,” Rolling Stone said in the statement. “We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo. It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students.”
Libby Locke, an attorney for Eramo, said her client was vindicated by the verdict: “We’ve said this all along, that Rolling Stone published a false and defamatory article about her.”
The trial began on Oct. 17, and over the next 16 days, jurors heard testimony from 12 witnesses and saw 11 hours of video statements and more than 180 exhibits of evidence.
Both Eramo and Erdely took the stand in the case. The jurors also saw video testimony from Jackie, the U-Va. student whose allegations of a 2012 gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi were later found to have no merit.
Eramo’s attorneys wrote in their complaint that the magazine defamed her by casting the former associate dean as a villain in the article, portraying her as the public face of an administration indifferent to rape victims.
In court, attorneys for Erdely, Rolling Stone and Wenner Media argued the opposite. They contended that although the magazine acknowledged its mistakes, it had not acted with actual malice, the high bar set for defamation cases involving public figures like Eramo.
Tom Clare, one of the attorneys representing Eramo, said in a closing statement Tuesday that his client was “collateral damage in a quest for sensational journalism.”
Reading from a Columbia University Journalism School report on the Rolling Stone article, Clare said that the magazine made basic errors in reporting and that the result was “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”
Clare noted that Jackie’s account to Rolling Stone was brutal and so vile that it seemed unbelievable.
“It had all the elements of a perfect story,” Clare said. “And when something appears too perfect, it usually is.”
In fact, it was.
An investigation by The Washington Post showed that aspects of Jackie’s account were not true, including that no one in the fraternity matched the name or description she gave for the person who allegedly was the ringleader of her assault. A person she had described to friends at the time as her assailant was complete fiction, according to Eramo’s attorneys, and The Post found that a photo she shared of her alleged attacker was actually of someone she knew from high school and who attended a different school out of state.
Eramo’s attorneys presented evidence that Erdely had a predetermined notion of what her story would be, discussing the concept of the story that became “A Rape on Campus” well ahead of her reporting, including a note describing how college administrations can be “indifferent” to rape survivors. They said that Erdely had “a preconceived story line” and acted with “reckless disregard” by ignoring conflicting information in her reporting.
“Once they decided what the story was going to be about, it didn’t matter what the facts were,” Clare said.
Clare noted that despite Rolling Stone’s reporting, Eramo had, indeed, cared for Jackie in the aftermath of her alleged assault, counseling her and organizing a meeting with police detectives to help bring her attackers to justice. But Jackie refused to participate in any police investigation.
Scott Sexton, an attorney for Rolling Stone, told the jurors in his closing statement that the magazine “acknowledges huge errors in not being more dogged . . . It’s the worst thing to ever happen to Rolling Stone.”
Sexton said that the article’s retraction cost Erdely her job at the magazine and her reputation as a journalist.
“She hasn’t written a classified since then,” Sexton said.
Sexton said that, in effect, Erdely and Rolling Stone had fallen victim to what he called at points a “hoax,” a “fraud” and a “perfect storm.”
The magazine’s editorial staff was no match for Jackie, Sexton said, noting that the magazine was not sure what exactly had happened to her, but admitted “she deceived us, and we do know it was purposeful.”
“This young woman was very good at telling this story,” Sexton said. “Dean Eramo believed her . . . Yet we are the ones being tried, in a sense, for having believed her.”
The jury ruled that Erdely acted with actual malice when she published two statements about Eramo, the first being that Eramo discouraged Jackie from reporting her allegations and a reference to Eramo’s “nonreaction” when Jackie first told Eramo about other allegations of gang rape at a fraternity. The jury’s finding means that they concluded Erdely knew the statements about Eramo were false — or had reason to doubt them and failed to investigate further — but published them anyway.
The jury also found that Erdely acted with actual malice in four statements she made in interviews after the article published. One of those statements came in an email to a Post reporter in response to questions about her reporting, in which Erdely wrote that Jackie came forward with her account “only to be met with indifference.”
The jury also ruled that Rolling Stone and Wenner Media had republished the article Dec. 5, 2014, when the magazine posted an editor’s note at the top of the story acknowledging that there had been doubts cast on Jackie’s account. Attorneys for Rolling Stone argued that the magazine had, in effect, retracted the article on that date, but the jury found otherwise, noting that an official retraction did not come until April. The jury found that by keeping the article up online in its entirety — while simultaneously acknowledging its flawed reporting — Rolling Stone editors knew that the article was false but published it again anyway, a key indicator of actual malice.
The findings of damages in Eramo’s case likely won’t be the last time Rolling Stone faces scrutiny for “A Rape on Campus”: Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has filed a $25 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone that is expected to go to trial next year.
This article has been updated.