A federal jury found on Friday that Rolling Stone and one of its writers defamed a former University of Virginia associate dean in a 2014 article that shocked many with its details of gang rape in a fraternity -- and that the magazine retracted after numerous questions were raised about its accuracy.
The suit was brought by Nicole Eramo, an administrator who was in charge of handling sexual violence cases in the period covered by the article. She argued in court not only that the article was factually wrong, but that it was based on assumptions that administrators like her were not necessarily helpful to women like "Jackie," as the magazine called the woman whose story the article told. Eramo sued for $7.5 million, but additional hearings will take place before damages are set.
The Washington Post, whose reporting exposed many of the inaccuracies in the Rolling Stone article, highlights the following evidence presented in the trial: notes prepared before the article was reported described how college officials can be "indifferent" to victims of rape. This evidence was important to show malice, which was necessary for the verdict. Pointing out errors alone would not have met the legal standard.
When the article was first published, it led to considerable soul searching at UVA, where many believed it exposed problems with sexual violence and with sexist treatment of women, especially by members of the fraternity system. The article received national attention at a time when many colleges were being criticized for ignoring sexual assaults.
As the article and the claims of Jackie were discredited, many advocates for women who have been assaulted on campus said that they feared this untrue story would cast doubt on the real instances of sexual violence faced by many women on campus.
As the story unraveled, Rolling Stone asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to investigate what went wrong. The report produced by Columbia may be found here.
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