Rolling Stone, its publisher, and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely were ordered on Monday to pay $3 million to University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo for her portrayal in a debunked article from 2014.
On Friday, a jury found the magazine, its publisher, and Ms. Erdely liable for defamation for their inaccurate representation of Ms. Eramo, the former associate dean of students at UVA, in the controversial cover story "A Rape on Campus." Eramo had sued the magazine for $7.5 million, arguing that it painted her as a villain who discouraged "Jackie," the anonymous student who claimed to have been gang-raped in a fraternity house in 2012, from reporting the assault to police.
In her testimony, Eramo described difficulty sleeping, concerns for her own safety, and contemplation of suicide following the publication of the article. She explained that in the aftermath of the article, the university moved her from her position as associate dean of students into another administrative position that she doesn't like as much and also suggested that the stress caused by the article could have contributed to a post-surgery infection after the double mastectomy for breast cancer she underwent around the time the article was published.
The jurors ultimately awarded Eramo $2 million for statements made by Erdely, and $1 million for the republication of the article by Rolling Stone and its publisher Wenner Media, a verdict that Rolling Stone could appeal. But while the outcome of the lawsuit most directly affects Eramo and those ordered to pay her, the case could also have broader implications for journalists reporting on sexual violence, as Jessica Mendoza reported for The Christian Science Monitor last year:
The complaint [by Eramo] once more draws attention to the challenges of reporting on sexual assault as well as the consequences of careless reporting — consequences that could result not only in damaged reputations and financial repercussions, but also in an impulse among journalists to avoid the subject, and in greater skepticism about the reality of sexual violence on college campuses.
Covering sexual assault has always been a challenge for journalists. In some places, reporting on sexual violence could mean physical retaliation, imprisonment, and even death for the reporters involved, according to The Committee to Protect Journalists. But as the Rolling Stone debacle has shown, there’s also the ever-present danger of losing credibility — on the part of both journalists and victims.
Others say the debunked article and its aftermath, including the lawsuit, could serve as an important lesson in journalism and encourage a national dialogue on how best to report on sexual violence.
"It would be a really unfortunate outcome if journalists backed away from doing this kind of reporting as a result of this highly visible failure, because this is important work. And it’s hard work," said Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and one of the authors of the report, in a press conference last April. "This kind of reporting environment, this kind of subject – it’s a new frontier for serious accountability journalism.... This is an area where we have got to have a conversation amongst ourselves about how to get better."
This report contains material from the Associated Press.