HOW THE OREGONIAN VIOLATED JOURNALISM’S CODE OF ETHICS AND WON AN AWARD FOR IT
by Kristine Erickson
On June 8, 2017, two articles were published simultaneously in The Oregonian newspaper and on its companion website, OregonLive. The Oregonian Media Group was exposing the Pierce County, Washington, juvenile record of Luke Heimlich, an Oregon State University superstar pitcher on the verge of the College World Series. Luke had faithfully done everything the law required in Washington and Oregon, and he was 11 weeks away from completing the 5-year waiting period to have his 2012 Washington State juvenile record sealed.
At the end of August 2017, Luke’s juvenile record was sealed, and he should now be entitled to the clean slate promised in Washington State law: “Thereafter the proceedings in the case shall be treated as if they never occurred, and the subject of the records may reply accordingly to any inquiry about the events, records of which are sealed.” [RCW 13.50.260 (6)(a)]
By opening Pandora’s box in June, the Oregonian thwarted the promise of Washington State law and condemned Luke Heimlich to a life sentence. He and his family have since been subjected to a tsunami of verbal abuse from a vigilante mob numbering in the millions. The collateral damage has impacted Oregon State University, the OSU Beavers baseball team and its fans, and countless victims of childhood sexual abuse, including me.
These two Oregonian articles flagrantly violated the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists: SPJ Code of Ethics.
“We realize — and have embodied in our code — that all journalism ethics is a balancing act between often conflicting responsibilities. One of our guiding principles, whose importance we all recognize, is ‘Seek truth and report it.’ Another is ‘Minimize harm.’ Obviously, if one reports all truths without flinching, we will inevitably do great harm, and if one minimizes harm as much as possible, one will not be reporting essential truths. The key is in the balancing act — and in recognizing the importance of each core value.”
Seek Truth and Report It
“Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing, or summarizing a story. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.”
“Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license to arrogance or undue intrusiveness. Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast. Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others that seek power, influence, or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do. Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.”
How the Oregonian journalists violated the SPJ Code of Ethics:
- They didn’t disclose the fact that the girl’s mother made the accusation immediately after she lost custody of her children in a court battle Luke’s family helped his older brother win.
- They exposed the 11-year-old girl in her community and invaded her privacy for life.
- They used inaccurate, inflammatory legal terms more than 60 times in describing the juvenile court charges and disposition.
- They failed to uncover the public record of prosecutorial misconduct in Luke’s home county, and they ignored juvenile injustice in general.
- They concealed the fact that the sex offender treatment provider repeated in all of his reports that Luke continued to assert his innocence.
- They featured a 2017 Benton County, Oregon, citation against Luke, while obscuring the fact that a judge had already dismissed the erroneous charge.
The Oregonian didn’t disclose the child custody battle that immediately preceded the accusation.
The girl’s mother made the accusation against Luke immediately after his family helped his older brother win a court order granting him full custody of his children. A couple of months after her December 2009 divorce, the mother moved out of state and left both children with her ex-husband. A year later, Luke’s brother petitioned the court for full custody. The mother disputed his petition and asked the court to award custody to her. With assistance from his family, Luke’s brother won the battle and was awarded full custody in August 2011. The mother was granted the right to receive visits from her children a few times a year during school holidays.
The first time the children visited their mother was during the 2011 Christmas break. Immediately after that visit, the mother told her ex-husband their daughter said Luke had molested her. Luke’s brother was compelled to report the allegation to authorities, because failing to do so could have been grounds to take the children away from him.
At that time, the official Washington State Child Interview Guide, which is still accessible online, recommended a flawed ‘funnel approach’ that is likely to lead a young child to confirm whatever an adult has already told the interviewer. See the Relevant Research page for additional information and a link to the Child Interview Guide.
The Oregonian journalists interviewed the mother, which indicates they tracked her down 700 miles away in a different state. Did they know the timing of the custody battle and conceal it, or did they fail to conduct the most basic investigation of her background? Court documents from divorce and custody cases are public records in Pierce County. A timeline of the Heimlich custody dispute can be located with a simple Google search, and the court documents can be downloaded instantly. For more information, see the Custody Dispute page.
As a result of creating justiceforluke.com, I have communicated with hundreds of people about Luke’s case. Most of them say they would have had a very different perspective on this case from the beginning if they had known the accusation followed the mother’s loss of custody.
These journalists violated SPJ ethics by leaving the public completely in the dark regarding the reliability and motivation of the woman they used as their primary source for a story that destroyed the reputation and future of the top college pitcher in the country.
The Oregonian exposed the 11-year-old girl and invaded her privacy for life.
The Oregonian quoted the girl’s mother as saying her daughter “doesn’t really remember everything that happened.” Then why would the woman encourage reporters to assure that her daughter will be publicly reminded of it for years to come? Responsible journalists would have recognized the mother’s enthusiasm for this story as a huge red flag. What kind of mother is eager to have her 11-year-old daughter’s report of sexual abuse published for public consumption?
Mark Katches, Vice President of Oregonian Media Group, piously wrote, “we believed the crime against a young, innocent and defenseless child had to be disclosed and that we had an obligation as journalists to disclose it.” He then threw the girl under the bus by making her the main topic of conversation at her small-town grade school, where her identity as the ‘molested child’ in the Oregonian story was obvious to everyone. As noted in the Moran/Schmidt article, Luke’s “guilty plea eliminated any need for ‘further interviews of the victim or her testimony at trial.” If only the Oregonian journalists had been so considerate of the girl.
My dear friends’ granddaughter did not consent to this permanent invasion of her privacy. The Heimlich family will be dealing with collateral damage from the horrendous exposure for years to come. It’s hard to imagine what the Oregonian could have done to more effectively maximize harm in this case.
The Oregonian articles triggered such continual, pervasive media coverage of the ‘molested child’ story, that it ripped open old wounds for countless victims of childhood sexual abuse, especially in the Pacific Northwest. See the 2018 Media Obsession page for my description of the impact on me. Since I posted that story on July 9, 2018, I have received messages from others with similar experiences.
The Oregonian used inaccurate, inflammatory legal terms more than 60 times.
The two Oregonian articles used forms of the words crime, conviction, and felon more than 60 times in describing Luke’s juvenile record. None of those terms applies to juvenile court proceedings. This may seem like a technicality, but precisely because of such differences, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles don’t need constitutional rights. For more information on this subject, see the Vigilante Journalism and Juvenile Injustice pages.
The headline of the Mark Katches article is, “Why we published Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich’s felony conviction.” In fact, it wasn’t a felony and there was no conviction. Luke was ‘adjudicated guilty’ of a ‘juvenile offense’ that would be a felony if it were committed by an adult. Is Katches really so ignorant of the facts, or did he purposely inflate the charge and disposition for the clickbait value of that inflammatory headline? Following his lead, many other journalists and hundreds of thousands of social media commentators have labeled Luke a ‘convicted felon.’
The Oregonian fed hundreds of irresponsible stories by sports columnists and bloggers who are still regurgitating the same falsehoods and inflammatory terms to this day. For a recent example and my rebuttal, see the following page: To All Chicago Lawyers.
The Oregonian failed to uncover the public record of prosecutorial misconduct in Luke’s home county, and they ignored juvenile injustice in general.
A simple Google search on the name of Luke’s prosecutor would have led to an April 2015 article published in the main newspaper of Luke’s home county. The News Tribune reported the results of a two-year study that revealed 43% of all overturned convictions in Washington State came from Pierce County, which has only 12% of the population and 12% of the court cases. A search on that subject would have revealed an August 2015 Seattle Times article, which reported the results of a 3.5-year Associated Press study that found 57% of all overturned convictions in Washington State came from Pierce County.
In one of those cases, a Washington appeals court found that Luke’s prosecutor, John Neeb, committed multiple episodes of ‘flagrant and ill-intentioned’ prosecutorial misconduct. This is the man who decided an accusation by a woman who had just lost custody of her children was a valid basis for wrecking the lives of the family she blamed for it.
While they were waiting for Luke’s juvenile record to arrive from Pierce County by snail mail, responsible journalists might have wondered what kind of chance kids generally have to prove their innocence. Washington court caseload reports for the past twenty years are posted online and can be located with a simple Google search. In 2012, Luke was one of 963 juveniles who pled guilty in Pierce County. Lacking an adult’s constitutional rights, 44 kids still decided to go to trial and try to prove their innocence. Only four of them succeeded. During the five years from 2012 through 2016, for every THOUSAND juveniles adjudicated guilty in Pierce County, only THREE managed to prove their innocence.
In a subsequent campaign to assassinate Luke’s character, the Oregonian’s John Canzano inverted the SPJ principle to hold those with power accountable and give voice to the voiceless. He featured powerful prosecutors with a history of abusing their positions. For examples of this, see the Prosecutorial Misconduct page.
The Oregonian concealed the fact that the sex offender treatment provider repeated in all of his reports that Luke continued to assert his innocence.
Luke’s sex offender treatment provider submitted five reports to the court that were presumably among the records sent to the Oregonian. In his initial evaluation, he reported that Luke’s parents believed he was falsely accused and that Luke denied having committed any sexual act with his niece. In every subsequent report, the therapist wrote, “Luke entered a guilty plea but maintains that he did not commit the offense.”
Instead of disclosing this, the Oregonian featured a 10-word boilerplate ‘confession’ from one line of the Washington State Juvenile Court Statement on Plea of Guilty, which was required by the court and was clearly coerced from the 16-year-old boy.
On July 20, 2018, Luke’s parents issued an open letter explaining why they instructed Luke to plead guilty when he was 16 and why they remained silent after the public exposure of his juvenile record in June 2017. Due to the Oregonian’s deceptive coverage, most people have dismissed the parents’ letter as a public relations ploy. The therapist’s reports show that the Heimlichs have been consistent all along.
The Oregonian featured a 2017 Benton County, Oregon, citation, while obscuring the fact that a judge had already dismissed the erroneous charge.
The Mark Katches article said Luke’s Washington juvenile record was revealed when Danny Moran did a background check on May 18, 2017, and discovered a Benton County, Oregon, citation. In fact, a judge had already dismissed that charge on May 17. The Moran/Schmidt article includes multiple references to Luke’s ‘registration lapse’ and ‘criminal citation’ before finally revealing far down the page that the charge had been dismissed. The world’s attention span doesn’t last for 30 paragraphs, and this deception caused hundreds of other journalists and hundreds of thousands of social media commentators to cite ‘failure to register’ as one more reason to condemn Luke Heimlich for life.
When Moran/Schmidt finally did admit the charge had been dismissed, they quoted a deputy district attorney who wrote, “Follow-up investigation reveals insufficient evidence of Defendant’s knowledge of Oregon reporting requirements.” This is a classic case of prosecutors refusing to admit law enforcement mistakes. The 23,250-word section of Oregon law governing sex offender registration is so convoluted that local law enforcement misinterpreted how it should apply to an out-of-state college student whose case was adjudicated in juvenile court. Luke’s lawyer pointed out that the citation was in error, and the deputy DA couldn’t prove otherwise, so the judge dismissed the charge.
Six months later, in November 2017, the Benton County court ordered Luke’s record expunged. That court order concludes with the following emphatic statement: “Now, therefore, it is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the Defendant’s arrest record herein should be and the same is hereby set aside pursuant to ORS 137.225, and hereafter the Defendant for all purposes of the law shall be deemed not to have been previously arrested herein.”
Legally, Luke Heimlich now has a clean slate, but the Oregonian has condemned him to a life sentence of verbal abuse from millions of people and exclusion from the career he has worked so hard for. Where can he go to get that expunged?
The Oregonian succumbed to the lure of clickbait gold.
A May 16, 2018, Sports Illustrated article cited reasons Mark Katches gave for publishing the Luke Heimlich story: “competitiveness, public safety and the surfacing of a criminal record of a public figure.”
Competitiveness? Yes. This story was a clickbait gold mine. Mark Katches recently accepted a new position as executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times. In an article about the move, the Oregonian said this: “The newsroom has expanded its online audience more than 70 percent during the four years he has served as editor.” How much of that increase came from the clickbait gold of the ‘molested child’ story about a superstar pitcher on the verge of the College World Series?
Public safety? Hardly. There is zero evidence that the Level 1 (low-risk) sex offender registry improves public safety. There is ample evidence that it harms juveniles who are required to register, as well as their families. Luke had established a record of exemplary character in high school and college, and it was reckless for Katches to label him a public safety risk.
The criminal record of a public figure? That statement is misleading on two counts. First, it wasn’t a ‘criminal’ record. Second, a college pitcher is not a public figure in the sense described in the SPJ Code of Ethics. Luke never sought power, influence, or attention. He was simply a student who pitched his heart out and got his reputation destroyed as a result of his extraordinary success.
The SPJ Northwest Excellence in Journalism Award
In June 2018, the five-state SPJ Northwest Region announced the winners of its 2017 Excellence in Journalism Awards. The Moran/Schmidt article about Luke Heimlich won the Sports Reporting award in the category of ‘Very Large’ publications. With this accomplishment, the Oregonian journalists not only violated the SPJ Code of Ethics, they made a mockery of it.
Many of my readers have asked what they can do to help Luke and his family recover from the wrong done to them by the Oregonian. If you agree with the opinions expressed here, I encourage you to email this page along with your comments to the Society of Professional Journalists and to the media in your region. I’ve provided a media contact list on the following page: Media email addresses.
If you have additional media contacts, please email them to me, and I’ll add them to the list.