UVA rape story: How lawsuit against Rolling Stone could affect sexual violence coverage

A dean at the University of Virginia has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the magazine, once more drawing attention to the consequences of careless reporting — especially in cases of sexual assault.

The fallout from Rolling Stone’s discredited University of Virginia rape story continues.

Nicole Eramo, an associate dean of students at the university, has filed a lawsuit against the magazine and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdley, seeking more than $7.5 million for defamation.

The complaint 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.

The suit, filed Tuesday in circuit court in Charlottesville, Va., claims that Ms. Eramo, who is in charge of dealing with sexual assault cases in the university and was featured in the Rolling Stone piece, has suffered a ruined reputation, lost credibility, and emotional distress as a result of the story, The Washington Post reported. The complaint reads, in part:

“Rolling Stone and Erdely’s highly defamatory and false statements about Dean Eramo were not the result of an innocent mistake. They were the result of a wanton journalist who was more concerned with writing an article that fulfilled her preconceived narrative about the victimization of women on American college campuses, and a malicious publisher who was more concerned about selling magazines to boost the economic bottom line for its faltering magazine, than they were about discovering the truth or actual facts.”

The original story, published on Nov. 19, 2014 as “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA,” was based largely on a single source: “Jackie,” whose anecdotes Ms. Erdley, the lead reporter on the story, failed to corroborate. Charlottesville police launched an investigation at UVA to confirm Rolling Stone’s allegations, but in March announced they had found no evidence that the events “Jackie” described in the piece had taken place.

A Columbia Journalism School investigation into the story ultimately deemed the article “a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable.”

“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” the report found. Collateral damage included Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity implicated in the story, as well as UVA.

Rolling Stone has since issued a public apology over the piece. But the story — and now Eramo’s lawsuit — could have broader consequences.

“I think the worst-case scenario would be that journalists don’t want to cover this topic,” Tracy Cox, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), told The Christian Science Monitor’s Amanda Paulson in April.

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.

As it is, 80 percent of attacks against college students go unreported, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found last year.  

“In no other crime is a victim treated with such disbelief and scrutiny as sexual assault, and Rolling Stone's journalistic fail could increase that skepticism,” according to an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle. “That would be a tragic outcome; it could push some victims back into the shadows who were just beginning to feel that they might safely come forward.”

Still, there are ways to turn a blow into a blessing. Among the recommendations put forth by the authors of the Columbia report are to balance sensitivity to victims with the demands of verification, and to corroborate survivor accounts.

As Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and one of the authors of the report, put it, “This is an area where we have got to have a conversation amongst ourselves about how to get better."

NSVRC’s Ms. Cox also urged transparency and careful attention to detail, even at the cost of publication delays.

“It’s better to have the right story than go with something that’s wrong and in the end causes more harm than good,” she told the Monitor.

“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," she added. "Through their reporting, they’re telling victims' stories. They can help to contribute to widespread societal change."

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