It's been nearly two years since Rolling Stone published its blistering account of an alleged gang rape inside a frat house at the University of Virginia (UVA). But only now, in the course of a multi-million dollar defamation suit that stemmed from the Rolling Stone story, are details of author Sabrina Rubin Erdely's reporting tactics coming to light. Jackie, the former UVA student whose story anchored the 9,000-word feature, told attorneys that Erdely misled her about the intent of the piece, and sent a text message Jackie perceived as meaning she couldn't change her mind about sharing her story in the magazine. (Erdely argued that her words were taken out of context.)
Published on Nov. 19, 2014, "A Rape on Campus," amplified a national conversation about the (very real) problem of sexual assault on American college campuses, describing in harrowing detail the alleged experience of "Jackie," then a 20-year-old junior, who alleged she had been raped by seven men at UVA's Phi Kappa Psi house.
Initially celebrated for its unflinching account of a violation that an estimated 1 in 4 women experience while pursuing higher education, "A Rape on Campus" became a cause for concern once critics, scholars, and activists began questioning the veracity of the story. After several independent investigations by police and journalistic outlets found no basis for Jackie's allegations, Rolling Stone took the unprecedented step of retracting the article and issuing an apology in April 2015.
Two years later, it's not Jackie's conduct — or even that of her alleged attackers — that's on trial. On Oct. 18, a federal judge in Virginia began hearing a testimony in a $7.85 million defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone filed by UVA administrator Nicole Eramo, who contends that the article falsely painted her as the "chief villain" in a story where the lack of compassion allegedly shown by administrators was nearly as shocking as the reported assault itself.
Eramo took the stand on the first day of the trial, and her attorneys played a portion of Jackie's deposition, where the former student said that the administrator was sympathetic to her plight, and in fact "did everything right," according to the Associated Press.
Because Jackie's last name and identity have not been released, given that she is a sexual assault victim, she will not testify directly before the jury considering the case in Charlottesville, Va. But on Monday, jurors were able to watch a video of the young woman's full deposition, given in April as sworn testimony.
Jackie said that when Erdely first contacted her, "she was under the impression that the article was going to be about sexual assault advocacy, not her rape," according to the AP. She also expressed confusion about which of her comments would be included in the final report.
"I was 20 years old and had no idea there was an off-the-record or an on-the-record," Jackie said in her deposition, according to the AP. "I was naïve."
As Erdely continued to write the piece, Jackie said she became increasingly uncomfortable with sharing her story — particularly with her allegations serving as the central focus of the article. At one point, just weeks before Rolling Stone published the piece, a friend of Jackie's allegedly sent Erdely a text asking if she could re-work the story to not rely so heavily on Jackie's claims.
According to Jackie's deposition, Erdely responded with a message saying, "There's no pulling the plug at this point — the article is moving forward."
"I remember feeling scared and overwhelmed and unsure of what to do," Jackie said in her deposition. "I felt like I was getting a lot of pressure from a lot of people to do things I didn't want [to] do."
In response to that revelation, Erdely told the jury that she would have allowed Jackie to step away from the story if she wanted to, adding that she had another woman's story that could have served as the feature's backbone. That text, she told the jury, only meant that the story about the university was moving forward, not that Jackie couldn't change her mind about participating. Erdely did not deny that she sent that text to Jackie's friend, according to the AP.
Ultimately, because "A Rape on Campus" relied so heavily on Jackie's recounting — and because Erdely did not attempt to contact any of Jackie's alleged assailants — both the author's credibility and Rolling Stone's was called into question.
Erdely did acknowledge that she had inklings Jackie's story might not be entirely truthful. During her own testimony on Saturday, Erdely tearfully recalled the moment she knew something had gone wrong. She called Jackie on the morning of Dec. 5, 2014, to ask whether she had filed a report with the police, since the story detailing her attack had been published and subsequently gone viral. Jackie said that it was not the right time, and that she wasn't actually sure her alleged assailant was a member of Phi Psi.
"When I got off the phone, I felt like the ground had shifted from under my feet," Erdely said in her Saturday testimony, according to The Washington Post. "The person I had talked to was not the person I was familiar with from my story. I felt that she didn't have credibility anymore, which meant that we couldn't stand behind anything that she had given me."
Regardless of Jackie's credibility, a reporter with decades of experience like Erdely arguably should have verified the claims her source was making. While Erdely did interview Jackie's friends, classmates, and some school administrators about the allegations, she declined to contact the alleged attackers, out of respect for Jackie's sense of safety.
And while retaliation against women who report sexual assault is a real thing, journalists face an increased burden to verify all allegations made when those claims suggest criminal activity. Ultimately, whether Jackie understood what comments would be on- or off-the-record (another device that responsible journalists should explain at the outset of any interview) is irrelevant. Erdely, and her editors, should have demanded a heightened level of scrutiny for Jackie's claims, as all editors should for any allegation of wrongdoing that could lead to prosecution.