After three days of deliberation, a federal court jury found Rolling Stone and publisher Jann Wenner’s media company liable for defaming a university administrator after the magazine published a false story about a gang rape at the University of Virginia.
The jury also found Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely liable for defamation with actual malice in the $7.5 million libel lawsuit for falsely portraying UVA administrator Nicole Eramo in a 9,000-word story entitled “A Rape on Campus,” which the magazine published in 2014.
Erdely was found liable of malice on 6 of 9 counts, which means the jury decided she wrote the article with the intent to harm a person or institution’s reputation. Wenner and Rolling Stone were both found liable of malice on 3 of 7 counts.
BREAKING: Wenner Media found liable on three claims. Nicole Eramo hugged her lawyers and cried. @HenryGraff
— Henry Graff (@HenryGraff) November 4, 2016
The story centered around a student only identified as “Jackie” who alleged she was gang-raped at a fraternity house in 2012. Within days of the story going public, police found inconsistencies in Jackie’s story and determined that there was no way an incident occurred the way she had described.
The Columbia Journalism Review later investigated the way Erdely and Rolling Stone handled the story, and found it was “a failure that was avoidable.”
The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking. The magazine set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting that, if pursued, would likely have led the magazine’s editors to reconsider publishing Jackie’s narrative so prominently, if at all. The published story glossed over the gaps in the magazine’s reporting by using pseudonyms and by failing to state where important information had come from.
Eramo, who was responsible for overseeing sexual assault accusations on campus, sued a month after the story was published, charging the magazine had portrayed her as “indifferent” towards Jackie’s plight.
In a statement about the verdict, Rolling Stone said they “made journalistic mistakes,” but won’t stop publishing stories that “shine a light” on important issues like campus rape.
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. 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. We will continue to publish stories that shine a light on the defining social, political and cultural issues of our times, and we will continue to seek the truth in every story we publish.
The publication is still embattled in an $25 million defamation lawsuit with the fraternity that was implicated in the story.