The Rolling Stone story, "A Rape on Campus," about the gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman and her struggle against the University's indifference, is now infamous for its inaccuracies and shoddy reporting. Last month, one UVA administrator's lawsuit against Rolling Stone went to court, where the jury found the magazine guilty of defaming her in the piece. The basis for the ruling? Not the fact that inaccuracies were published, but rather that those inaccuracies, though disavowed by Rolling Stone, were left online uncorrected.
Now, Rolling Stone's lawyers are asking the judge in the case to overrule the verdict, on the grounds that it would set a tricky precedent for journalists. Would it allow news organizations to be held accountable for inaccuracies in reporting, no matter how old? In a new era of potential press insecurity under President Trump, should journalists be concerned?
BOB GARFIELD: Rolling Stone’s now infamous 2014 article, “A Rape on Campus” portrayed gruesome details of an alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia freshman and the university’s supposed institutional indifference to the victim. Within weeks of its publication, reporting from the Washington Post and others found major gaps in Rolling Stone’s reporting, and it turned out that much of the story had been fabricated by the article’s main source. The UVA administrator whom the story characterized as “turning a blind eye to rape” sued for defamation and was awarded $3 million. The jury was particularly offended that Rolling Stone kept the original story online, albeit with an apologetic disclaimer about its errors.
Now, the ethos of online publishing encourages transparency and updates and frowns on attempts to erase errors altogether, so the magazine is asking a judge to overturn the jury's decision. Taylor Rees Shapiro is an education reporter for the Washington Post. He’s been on the story from the very beginning. Taylor, welcome to On the Media.
T. REES SHAPIRO: Hi. Thanks very much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: So Rolling Stone is asking for the judge to vacate the $3 million damages. It is not claiming that its story was solid reporting.
T. REES SHAPIRO: That’s correct. In fact, during the trial a lot of the defense coming from the lawyers representing Rolling Stone essentially said, we made a tremendous mistake, this has damaged our reputation. However, we never intended to defame the plaintiff in the case, the UVA administrator, Nicole Eramo.
BOB GARFIELD: And then, adding insult to injury, never pulled the original offending story from its website. What did it do instead, exactly?
T. REES SHAPIRO: They did not alter the story whatsoever, other than to add this disclaimer, essentially saying that there are significant flaws in this article that you’re going to read below this, and we apologize for it, and we no longer have faith in the main source of our article, this young woman, Jackie.
What I think is the standard operating procedure for most publications down the digital age, and I can mainly speak from my experience with the Washington Post, is when you make a mistake you immediately correct it in some way. Generally, there’s going to be language that you have updated or fixed an error in the story. On top of that, generally you'll repeat whatever the error was, and then you’ll add what you have corrected. So if you said a person quoted in this story was named Robert Smith and, in fact, he is actually named Richard Smith, you would correct the error within the body of the story, but not to confuse people, you would at least admit the original mistake you had.
Rolling Stone admitted they had a mistake but they did not revise the piece. They also didn't add any strikethrough language or note in any significant way with annotations or something saying that this part of the story we can no longer believe because, you know, we no longer trust our source. All they did was put up the disclaimer.
BOB GARFIELD: It was the fact that the uncorrected story remained alive online that incensed the jury. Why not, in a case like this, pull it offline altogether?
T. REES SHAPIRO: I think the correct move would have been absolutely to just retract the entire story from the website. Maybe a little bit of hubris got in the way. Rolling Stone had been extremely defiant, as doubts began to arise. They didn’t know exactly how bad it was.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, Rolling Stone’s lawyers in asking for the award to be vacated say, no, no, no, you're getting this wrong, jury. If you think that you're going to encourage publishers to be more transparent in their correcting of errors, this is not the way to go about it. It’s actually going to have the opposite effect. What's the basis of that claim?
T. REES SHAPIRO: They argue that had they done nothing, had they not at least admitted the mistake in writing on the account that remained online, that there would be no cause for the jury to award any defamation damages, the argument being that since they hadn’t admitted it they wouldn't have had the prior knowledge basis in the defamation law to prove that they knew the mistake was wrong but published it anyway. In trying to do good, in their eyes, they said, by publishing this disclaimer onto the story, they also, on the other hand, admitted a mistake, knew the information within it was false and published it anyway, which is exactly the standard you have to meet for a limited public figure, as Nicole Eramo was deemed by the judge. That’s a very fine point of why Rolling Stone actually was found accountable for defamation.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in tort law there’s such a thing as a statute of limitations, and that means that once two years expires you’ve lost your chance to seek remedy in the courts. But if this decision stands, it means every publisher is liable essentially in perpetuity, because what's online never really fully goes away, for every mistake it has ever made, if it can’t prove that it was an honest error. If this decision is left standing, does this create a legal jeopardy for publishers in the digital age that is just another nail in the coffin of press freedom?
T. REES SHAPIRO: It’s just one more risk that news organizations will have to mitigate as they consider how they move forward in the future. Suppose a figure comes back into the news after a long time and you pull up something from the archives in the 1970s from the newspaper and you decide, hey, you know, why don’t we put this online? It’s relevant to then, it's relevant to now. Suppose there had been an error hidden in that old print story and you republish it on your website, you’re bringing it back into the public realm. You’re now liable as a news organization for possible defamation suits.
BOB GARFIELD: The judge's decision in this case could well have an effect on how all publishers handle corrections from this point forward. It's absolutely going to have an impact on Rolling Stone in the near future because there's a potentially much more ruinous court case yet ahead.
T. REES SHAPIRO: That's right, and that involves the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, which was not only depicted in words in the articles, being the center of this ritualistic sex assault behavior, but the opening spread very clearly depicted the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house with its Greek letters out front. And I think that those kinds of details will make it almost unavoidable for Rolling Stone to face up to the fact that they published information that turned out to be totally false. There was no place where the fraternity was described in any ways as positive. It was only depicted in this sort of very evil manner. And I don't think that it'll ruin the magazine itself. They’re very popular. They’re on the newsstands everywhere. Subscriptions are doing very well, they tell me. But this'll cost them a pretty penny, for sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Taylor, thank you very much.
T. REES SHAPIRO: Absolutely, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Taylor Rees Shapiro is an education reporter for the Washington Post.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Comin’ up, hey, Bobby, you want to share a pizza?
BOB GARFIELD: I sure would. Can we get it with extra - pepperoni?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eh, it sounds dirtier in email. This is On the Media.