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'Jackie' faces deposition: Where campus rape exposé went wrong

The University of Virginia student, whose story of a campus assault was the focus of a now-discredited Rolling Stone article, will be questioned in a defamation case.

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    The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., shown in this November 2014 file photo, was the scene of an alleged rape in a Rolling Stone story which was later discredited by its editors.
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"Jackie," the University of Virginia student whose story of campus rape sparked outrage when it ran in Rolling Stone but then failed to check out, now faces questioning in a defamation case.

Scathing criticism of Rolling Stone's journalistic practices and the current defamation case highlight how journalists should, and should not, report on sensitive topics such as sexual assault.

Heavy criticism of the Rolling Stone article, which ran in 2014, focused on how the publication had possibly undermined discussion about campus rape because it relied on a single source — identified only as "Jackie" — whose account the lawsuit alleges is both false and defamatory.

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Associate Dean Nicole Eramo, who alleges that the story portrayed her as "chief villain" who did not take Jackie's claims seriously, has filed a $7.5 million defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely, the author of "A Rape On Campus," which set off outrage, then skepticism, for its depiction of campus culture, administrators, and the fraternity where the attack allegedly took place. The magazine has since apologized for the article, and police have cleared Phi Kappa Psi of wrongdoing

"We want [journalists] to see that despite the complexities and difficulties [in reporting about sexual assault, it] can be done well, can be done accurately, and can have widespread positive impacts," Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), told The Christian Science Monitor's Amanda Paulson last year. "Through their reporting, they're telling victims' stories. They can help to contribute to widespread societal change."

"I think the worst-case scenario would be that journalists don’t want to cover this topic," Ms. Cox told the Monitor. 

After local police and the implicated fraternity found no corroborating evidence for the story, Rolling Stone asked the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for an independent review. The review condemned the story as one of "journalistic failure that was avoidable," where Rolling Stone had erred at every stage of the reporting and editing process.

"The problem of confirmation bias — the tendency of people to be trapped by preexisting assumptions and to select facts that support their own views while overlooking contradictory ones — is a well-established finding of social science," investigators wrote in the report. "It seems to have been a factor here."

Lawyers for Ms. Eramo have demanded Jackie's testimony, despite Jackie's lawyers' claims that a deposition would be re-traumatizing. On Tuesday, a Virginia judge ruled that Jackie would have to be available for up to five hours of confidential questioning. 

Phi Kappa Psi has also filed a $25 million lawsuit against Rolling Stone. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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