UVa’s Associate Dean of Students, Nicole Eramo, is suing Rolling Stone magazine for libel to the tune of $7.5 million in damages. Of course, the magazine denies either misrepresenting or criticizing Ms. Eramo, whose lawyer accuses Rolling Stone of “malicious and reckless journalism.” Whether or not the lawsuit has merit, though, it will have the deleterious effect of discouraging future reporting about sexual assault on campus.
No one disputes the failure on the part of Rolling Stone to monitor reporting on the case that reportedly occurred on UVa’s campus in September 2012. A woman designated as “Jackie” alleged that members of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity had gang raped her. Shortly after the article about the case appeared in Rolling Stone last November, questions arose as to the accuracy of its details. Ultimately, the reporting was largely discredited when an independent evaluation conducted through Columbia University determined that neither the story’s writer nor the magazine had checked facts.
Although police concluded last March that evidence supporting the allegation had not yet materialized, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo has stated, “that doesn’t mean something terrible did not happen” to “Jackie” on the night in question. By the same token, flawed fact-checking in the article doesn’t mean the incident didn’t occur. As Donna Potts, who has written about her own gang rape for The Chronicle of Higher Education, affirmed to me recently, survivors of sexual violence often forget or confuse facts of their assault; if “Jackie” didn’t provide author Sabrina Rubin Erdely with consistently reliable information, her lingering trauma may be the cause. Erdely and the magazine were responsible for validating “Jackie’s” narrative, and, having failed to do so, owe everyone portrayed in the article an apology and a corrected record.
But if a dean who considers herself maligned by faulty reporting seeks millions of dollars in compensation, other publications who stand to expose sexual misconduct on campuses will understandably shy away from doing so. The liability will be perceived as too great.
We already know that the most difficult aspect of coming to terms with sexual violence on campus is that of reporting the incidents themselves. If news and analytical reporting of the cases is seen as too risky for periodicals like Rolling Stone, then instances of sexual violence are destined not only to stay hidden, but to get buried even deeper than before. While Ms. Erdely no doubt continues to suffer from the collateral damage of botched journalism, her sense of personal injury, set against the immeasurable chill her lawsuit will effect in the larger community, seems exaggerated.