By Casey Bukro
Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 story about an alleged gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house after admitting post-publication doubts about the story’s accuracy. You might wonder what a blunder like that might cost a publication, and now we know.
The magazine was hammered by lawsuits. In November 2016, a federal court jury in Charlottesville, Va., awarded $3 million in damages to a former U.Va. associate dean, Nicole Eramo. The jury found that the Rolling Stone article damaged her reputation by reporting she was indifferent to allegations of a gang rape on campus. Eramo oversaw sexual violence cases at U.Va. at the time the article was published.
The jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation with “actual malice,” which usually means a reckless disregard for the truth.
T. Rees Shapiro reports in the Washington Post that the jury awarded Eramo $2 million from Erdely and $1 million from Rolling Stone. Eramo sought $7.5 million in the suit she filed in May, 2015.
Eramo testified that the university reassigned her from counseling students on sexual violence issues, which had been her life’s work. She said she also received hundreds of emails condemning her.
The 9,000-word Rolling Stone story, titled “A Rape on Campus,” was intended to draw national attention to the serious issue of campus rape. But it was based largely on one anonymous source, a young woman identified as “Jackie.” It opened with a graphic description of a fraternity gang rape. It appeared online in late November, 2014, and on newsstands in the magazine’s December 2014 edition.
Its publication attracted millions of readers, some of whom condemned the university, campus officials and the fraternity named in the story. Erdely reported that Jackie told her that the 2012 gang rape happened in the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house, which filed a $25 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone. That suit is scheduled for trial next year.
One of Eramo’s attorneys said the Rolling Stone article was “a quest for sensational journalism” that was “brutal and so vile that it seemed unbelievable.”
The Washington Post took a hard look at the story and found that large parts of it could not be verified. A Charlottesville police investigation and a report by the Columbia University School of Journalism also failed to corroborate its assertions.
The Columbia Journalism Review called the story “a failure that was avoidable.” CJR also found that the Rolling Stone story failed in “basic, even routine journalistic practice” to check facts or question others who might have shed light on the case or deny it happened.
“An investigation by the Washington Post showed that aspects of Jackie’s account were not true,” the Post’s Shapiro wrote, “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 lawyers said that Erdely had “a preconceived story line” and acted with “reckless disregard” by ignoring conflicting information in her reporting.
In a statement after the verdict, Rolling Stone said the story attempted “to tackle the very serious and complex topic of sexual assault on college campuses.”
Eramo’s lawyers said that Erdely had “a preconceived story line.”
No one will deny that the issue deserved national attention. But in the end, Rolling Stone became a poster child for that sorry adage in irresponsible journalism: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Rolling Stone wanted to tell that story even though it did not have the facts to back it up. They were eager to hang it on a girl named Jackie.
The federal jury also seemed to notice a reluctance by Rolling Stone and its owner, Wenner Media, to acknowledge the rape story was false. Shapiro wrote that Rolling Stone and Wenner republished the article Dec. 5, 2014, with an editor’s note at the top acknowledging that doubts were cast on Jackie’s account.
Rolling Stone lawyers argued, wrote Shapiro, that the magazine had, in effect, retracted the article on Dec. 5. But the jury decided 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.”
Rolling Stone apologized and retracted the story. The story was deleted from the magazine’s website.
At the time of the official retraction, Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, issued a statement saying: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Jack Kelly called the rape story “an unforgivable breach of journalism ethics.”
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics has many things to say about how the Rolling Stone rape story went wrong, beginning with “seek truth and report it.” Rolling Stone did not print the truth. The code also asks journalists to acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.
The federal jury pointed out that Rolling Stone was dragging its feet in fessing up to its unprofessional conduct.
Rolling Stone became a poster child for that sorry adage in irresponsible journalism: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Critics say the Rolling Stone story was a setback for campus rape awareness in America because it could raise questions about the accuracy of statements by rape victims.
The Rolling Stone story also is a reminder that bad journalism hurts people. Eramo testified that the false accusation made against her, and the loss of her professional identity, caused her to consider suicide.
And since finances continue to be a major issue in journalism these days, consider that Rolling Stone’s parent, Wenner Media, based in New York, announced that it will sell 49 percent of the magazine to the son of a Chinese billionaire. Forbes reported that the deal “marks a serious shift in tactics and a new chapter for the music publication, which has been a music industry standard for decades now.”
Being handed over in part to the son of a Chinese billionaire seems like some sort of publication exile, perhaps to spread the punitive pain. Forbes said Rolling Stone still is one of the biggest names in media, but “the brand is struggling just like almost every other.” Being slapped with a $3 million fine, with possibly more coming, cannot improve the outlook.
There are consequences to bad journalism. In the maelstrom that often follows, those involved no doubt agonize in the dark hours of the night. Sometimes they ignored warnings, some subtle and others not so subtle.
This is the anguish that comes in hindsight over what went wrong and what could have been done to avoid it. How much easier would it have been to spare themselves all the pain and simply do the things that good journalism demands?
See also: Rape, Cosby and UVA: How aggressively did journalists pursue the facts? (December 16, 2014)
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.