Using anonymous sources to rehabilitate a mobster’s image

This past weekend The Boston Globe published a story about Boston-based gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and his son (deceased) a girlfriend gave birth to in 1967. In terms of advancing the saga of Bulger’s life (reported to include 19 murders), it doesn’t do much. In fact, the story boils down to an attempt by the old girlfriend, Lindsey Cyr, to rehabilitate the Bulger image; apparently, until his son died at 6 years old, Bulger was a great dad. I was touched to find a mass murder was a caring dad.

On the scale of investigation journalism, the story was on par with an investigation of why the sun came up this morning. Given that, why does this story use anonymous sources throughout? Repeatedly the story cites a “former mob associate” of Bulger’s (not clear if it’s the same assocate referred to throughout the story). The story doesn’t give a reason why these sources need to be anonymous.

Also, in a weird turn of the story, when trying to cite an incident that included Bulger’s younger brother, former State Senate president William, a “friend of William M. Bulger” confirms the story, not William Bulger himself! Why?

Using anonymous sources can be an effective tool, but readers have to know why they’re being used if we’re expected to trust the reporting. Is it possible that The Boston Globe hasn’t learned the lessons of former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair? The upshot of the Jayson Blair affair was for the Times to be more judicious in its use of anonymous sources; and when its done, to tell the reader why.

Read the Bulger story. Am I missing something? How confident are you in that story?

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