2018 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Benefit of the Doubt

About the Project

Late in 2016, members of the Portland school board got disturbing information: A teacher they’d fired for assaulting a co-worker had apparently been kept on the job for decades even though multiple students accused him of sexual misconduct.

Board members directed staffers to look into what transpired and report back. That never happened.

But our new education reporter Bethany Barnes followed through. School district lawyers and other officials fought her at every turn. They refused interviews, withheld records and gave her faulty information. But she and videographer Teresa Mahoney were able to reach a victim, who agreed to tell her story.

Mahoney’s video, through her art and plotting, is striking. She worked with limited visuals to intersperse the gripping interview with the victim with old photos. Her muted illustrations captured the isolation the victim felt as a young woman. Mahoney created a dynamic presentation for the written complaint the girl had made.

At the end, the type treatment evoked the grim and unsatisfying ending to the investigation years ago.

The results of The Oregonian/OregonLive’s publication of the Mitch Whitehurst project were immediate and could transform the way Oregon’s largest school district operates, saving children and families future anguish.

“Benefit of the Doubt” chronicled exactly how top officials in Portland Public Schools helped the educator evade allegations of making inappropriate sexual advances toward students, including pressuring two for oral sex. The package prompted an independent investigation, which substantiated our findings. It also forced the district to grapple with broken trust and to search for better practices, efforts it would have not undertaken otherwise.

The story was powerful because it gave voice to women and girls the school district had ignored and the video was a key element in that.

“This is so empowering for me and gives me a form of closure,” said Rose Soto, who had reported Whitehurst’s disturbing overtures when she was a high school student.

“Benefit of the Doubt” sent shockwaves through the community. Using social media, reporter Barnes was a model of how to get the word out about important journalism. She used a variety of approaches, strong headlines, appropriate outrage and multiple points of entry to market her work to readers.

The project faced and overcame steep odds. The school district hired a high-powered law firm to try to keep secret the records Barnes sought. Barnes filed a 95-page appeal to the district attorney, who sided with her, rejecting the grounds on which the district attempted to silence the story. The Oregonian/OregonLive published many of the source documents online for readers to review.

“Benefit of the Doubt” epitomizes the good that exceptional journalists can do for students and a community: Find truths that powerful people have obscured, tell them accurately and compellingly, and keep shining that spotlight until the faults of a powerful system are fixed. I commend “Benefit of the Doubt” to you.