A federal jury has found Rolling Stone magazine, reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and the magazine's publisher liable in a defamation suit regarding a thoroughly and immediately debunked story about a supposed gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house.
The story purported to be a tale of gang rape by frat boys of a female student identified only as "Jackie." It became clear almost instantly that Erdely hadn't done much of a reporting job, as the Washington Post and other media outlets found startling inconsistencies in the story.
The suit was filed by former U-Va associate dean Nicole Eramo, who said that the story painted her as the "chief villain" who was dismissive about a rape accusations. The Washington Post reports:
The story opened with a graphic depiction of a fraternity gang rape that went viral online and sent shock waves across the U-Va. campus community. But within days of the article’s publication, key elements of the account fell apart under scrutiny. The magazine eventually retracted the story in April 2015.
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.
. . .
In court, lawyers representing Erdely, Rolling Stone and its corporate parent company, Wenner Media, argued the opposite. The lawyers contended that while 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 lawyers 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 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.
Moral: It is always good to check your facts, even if the story plays into the stereotype of evil frat boys and the campus "rape" culture at a pretty university.
There will be more fall out next week.
Damages yet to be assessed.