Jurors found Friday that Rolling Stone magazine, its publisher and a reporter defamed University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo, who sued the magazine for $7.5 million over its discredited November 2014 story “A Rape on Campus.”
The article written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely told the harrowing story of a woman identified only as ‘Jackie,’ who claimed she was gang raped by seven men at a fraternity house. A police investigation found no evidence to back up Jackie’s claims.
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University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo, who counseled Jackie, said the article painted her as its “chief villain.” Jurors will decide how much to award her in damages at a later date.
Here are five things you should know about the case.
WHAT’S ACTUAL MALICE?
Because the judge ruled that Eramo was a public figure, she couldn’t simply claim that Rolling Stone was negligent in its reporting. She had to argue that it acted with “actual malice.” That means Eramo had to prove the reporter and her editors knew what they were writing about her was false or had entertained serious doubts as to whether it might be true.
The judge told jurors it wasn’t enough for Eramo to prove that Rolling Stone and Erdely “did not conduct a thorough investigation of the facts” or were “careless” in the way they wrote and edited the article.
In arguing there was actual malice, Eramo’s attorneys claimed Erdely came into the story with a preconceived narrative, had reasons to doubt Jackie’s credibility and didn’t follow standard journalistic practices. Rolling Stone’s attorneys countered that Erdely and her editors never questioned whether Jackie was reliable before the story was published.
WHAT STATEMENTS WERE IN QUESTION?
Eramo claimed she was defamed by several sections of the article and in media interviews Erdely gave after the story was published.
Jurors found that Erdely acted with actual malice on six claims — two statements in the article and four statements to media outlets after the story’s publication. That includes a part in the story where Erdely wrote that Eramo had a “nonreaction” when she heard from Jackie that two other women were also gang raped at the same fraternity at the university.
Jurors also found that Erdely acted with actual malice when she said in a statement to The Washington Post days after the story was published that the University of Virginia administration chose not to act on Jackie’s allegations “in any way.”
Jurors also found that the decision by Rolling Stone and Wenner Media, the magazine’s publisher, to repost the story Dec. 5, 2014 — with an editor’s note acknowledging problems with the story — counted as “republishing” the debunked story. Jurors said the publisher and magazine didn’t act with actual malice when the story was originally published but did when it was republished.
The magazine did not officially retract the story and remove it from its website until the following April.
WHAT WAS ROLLING STONE’S PRIMARY DEFENSE?
Rolling Stone’s attorneys tried to show jurors that if the university believed Jackie had been assaulted, it only makes sense that they would too. Eramo, who counseled Jackie, said she tried to get the young woman to report her assault to police, but Jackie refused to cooperate. Rolling Stone says the article’s criticism of the administration for not issuing a campus-wide warning after Jackie told them she was assaulted remains a fair critique — even if the woman’s account didn’t hold up to scrutiny.
“Just because someone makes a false fire alarm doesn’t mean fire engines don’t roll,” Attorney Scott Sexton said during the trial.
WHAT HAPPENED TO JACKIE?
Jackie’s attorneys maintain she is a sexual assault victim, so she never appeared in person at the trial and her full name has remained confidential. Attorneys for Rolling Stone and Erdely said repeatedly throughout the trial that they believe the woman experienced some sort of trauma, but no one knows what.
Jurors watched a video of Jackie’s previously recorded deposition, which was both vague and contradictory. Jackie said repeatedly that she couldn’t remember when pressed to explain what she told Erdely about her sexual assault. Jackie said she stands by the account she gave Rolling Stone, and added “I believed it to be true at the time.” Jackie said she believes she was assaulted but has post-traumatic stress disorder, adding some of the details of her attack are “foggy.”
WHAT’S NEXT FOR ROLLING STONE?
Rolling Stone still faces a $25 million defamation lawsuit from the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity — where Jackie claimed her sexual assault took place. That lawsuit is set to go to trial late next year. A federal judge has thrown out a separate lawsuit over the article filed by three former members of the fraternity.
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