Life gets complicated when you write about an accused murderer. People attack, criticize and take out their frustrations on you.
I’m going to skip over the personal attacks both because they are easily disproved and very rarely bother me.
I am far more interested in genuine critical feedback — whether I think it’s misguided or not — so I’d like to take a look at some of the things people have said to and about me as I’ve reported and written about the murder of Tim Bosma.
I’d be happy to discuss in good faith the following criticisms, which I’ve received. Please feel free to comment away or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org:
Criticism: You’re writing about this case for money
And this is a bad thing, why? Reporters work for money. Book authors work for money. Even the people, who accuse me of doing this for money, presumably work for money. How does it become somehow wrong for an independent journalist to write about a certain subject for money?
Criticism: You use unnamed sources
I agree that unnamed sources are problematic and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t prefer a named source to an unnamed one. The problem is people/sources don’t always want their names out there and, often, for very valid reasons. Two reporters at the Globe and Mail even did a video interview about how difficult it was to get people on the record about this particular case.
I think part of the problem is Google. Once upon a time, if you talked to a reporter about a murder case, your name appeared in the paper and that was it. Nowadays, you risk having the name of a grisly murderer appear next to yours in search engine results for years to come. It’s understandable why that might make people more reluctant to talk than ever.
When I use unnamed sources, I always assess their credibility. Controversial issues must be double and triple-sourced. For example, in the case of the Dellen Millard jailhouse letter, it was not enough to have a group of people who had worked with Millard say they were convinced the letter was real. I had to find someone with a handwriting sample, which took weeks.I also ran the letter by an experienced criminal profiler to further assess ifs veracity.
Just as I do as a reader, I ask myself what the motivations of a source are. Does the person have an axe to grind? Why is she willing to talk? Why won’t he be named?
Often the reasons are valid. For example, fear of reprisal or being chased by a media mob. When the Globe reported Dellen Millard engaged in plagiarism at community college, the sources were unnamed, but I had no reason to doubt the fact that he did indeed plagiarize. It was clear to me why they would want to be unnamed and there was no obvious reason for them to lie.
Right now, I’m working with someone who, I believe, has inside information but stretches the truth so I have asked for written documentation to back up certain claims. If I rely on a bad source, it will come back to bite me and make others reluctant to talk to me. On the other hand, if my sources are reliable, people will be more likely to give me information because they trust that it will be accurately transmitted.
Given all this, which unnamed sources, if any, have I used that you find difficult to trust? Why?
Do you trust me as a reporter? Why or why not?
Criticism: You posted a photo of Dellen Millard’s mother, Madeleine Burns
Burns plays a major role in this case. People want to know about her including what she looks like. I do, however, understand some people’s resistance to using her photo, especially since she herself has not been charged with anything and seems to have led a low-profile life.
In cases like these, my instincts are those of someone in the news business — namely if there’s a valid public interest, it’s okay to show someone’s photo. I’m not out of sync here either. Most other major news outlets have shown and continue to show photos of Burns. In the most commonly used photo of her, she and her son are shown while a third person, not involved in the case, is blurred out.
If you think it’s wrong for media outlets to show photos of Madeleine Burns, how about this — is it wrong to do a Google image search for her? If this curiosity is valid, then why is it not valid for media to satisfy it?
Criticism: You fish for information by asking people to contact you on your blog
And that’s wrong because…
Criticism: You wrote about “Josie”
Josie has an active online life and shows no signs of regretting her Cockpit days. Nude pictures of her are available on more than one website. I have no idea whether she would mind having her name associated with the Bosma case as she never responded to any of my requests for interviews.
I honestly don’t know what I would have done if she had said, “Please don’t write about me.” It’s another interesting question. If you put yourself out there in public for all to see, do you get to take it back when something beyond your control happens? Why should a journalist, whose role is to serve her readers, respect your wishes for privacy given your earlier choice to lead a non-private life?
That’s it for now. I’d love to hear from anyone who would like to discuss these questions. They raise complex and interesting issues.
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