Some people may think of local news as foreign or irrelevant to them if they don’t live in the publication’s main coverage area. But local news can be global news, and The Oregonian’s “No Mercy” is the ultimate proof.
The Portland, Oregon-based news outlet is a regional heavyweight in the news business, but the subject of one of their biggest investigative stories – Mercy Corps – is an internationally known nonprofit that averages close to half a billion dollars in revenue each year. Yet, the team at The Oregonian didn’t flinch when they received a tip that the organization’s high-profile co-founder, the late Ellsworth Culver, had been accused of sexual abuse. Editor Therese Bottomly and four journalists began what would become a nearly year-long investigation into the renowned organization and its celebrated founder.
The story that resulted focused heavily on accusations made against Culver by his daughter, Tania Culver Humphrey, who alleged years of sexual abuse before her father died in 2005. “As soon as I heard the allegations involved Mercy Corps and one of its revered leaders, I saw the potential for a major story,” said journalist Noelle Crombie. “Mercy Corps is viewed as a beloved institution and force for good in the world. I understood the significance and possible implications of the allegations. The question and challenge for us in those early days was how we would corroborate Ms. Humphrey’s account.”
Crombie and her colleagues found significant amounts of information that supported Humphrey’s claims of abuse – and that showed negligence on the part of Mercy Corps executives, who were aware of the ongoing situation.
“The news organization reviewed Humphrey’s medical and mental health records from her teen years, as well as two child abuse reports to the state and hundreds of pages of Humphrey’s personal records, including journal entries, poems and drafts of letters. All of those documents are replete with references to Culver’s sexual abuse of his daughter,” wrote The Oregonian reporters.
The well-documented allegations did more than shine a light on a terrible past problem; they sparked change, too.
Following the story’s publication, while Humphrey was still working with The Oregonian staff to tell her story, support started pouring in.
“I received many emails and calls from readers who were outraged by Mercy Corps’ treatment of Ms. Humphrey,” Crombie said. “One sent me a book to give to her. Another made her a quilt. The most touching messages came from older women who themselves had been sexually abused by a father or prominent men and had either never disclosed the abuse or were not believed. ‘Thanks for pursuing this for all of us,’ wrote one older woman.”
Then, word came that Mercy Corps staff were posting messages of support for Humphrey outside of the nonprofit’s Portland headquarters, so Humphrey and a team from The Oregonian headed over to see what was happening. “It was remarkable,” Bottomly said. “The [Mercy Corps] staff heard that she was out there and wanted to come out and support her. [It started] one by one, and then a flood of people from headquarters just came out and just surrounded her in this supportive embrace and basically told her, ‘We believe you and we stand with you.’”
The heartfelt response from the Mercy Corps staff was just the start. In addition to an outpouring of support for Humphrey, the Mercy Corps staff also pushed for change within. The CEO, who had been involved in the coverup of Culver’s abuse of Humphrey, was forced to resign after staff made it clear that they would not tolerate such behavior from the leadership.
Afterward, Bottomly got her staff together. “I like to stop and recognize the moment, so I gathered the team and we talked about what we’d accomplished by publishing the story,” she said.
“This is why we do this work. We want to call out injustice, hold the powerful accountable, reveal the truth and tell stories that matter,” Crombie explained. “Seeing the impact of this story on Ms. Humphrey and other women was deeply gratifying.”
“This is my community,” Bottomly added. “I care about my community and I care about [The Oregonian]. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that we could do top-notch journalism, and the team I work with here really wants to be here, too.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.