The journalist and the (accused) murderer, his mother and his ex

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 ann.brocklehurst@gmail.com:

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.

You can also sign up for my mailing list to get updates on the Dellen Millard investigations:

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29 thoughts on “The journalist and the (accused) murderer, his mother and his ex

  1. How would you feel if it were your son on trial for murder.

    It is not the mother’s fault. Mothers stand by their children. Its what they do no matter what.

    • It would depend on the circumstances of the murder.

      I disagree that mothers should stand by their children no matter what, but that’s another long and complicated discussion.

  2. I would be more willing to accept your reportage if you would include at least some reference to the enormous influence of the evangelical Christian Reformed Church in, at the very least, the shaping of public opinion in this case. If you were to dig even further into this “religious” organization’s Hamilton “union busting” activities vis a vis the construction industry, you might find even more interesting fodder for your reports.

  3. I’m not sure I like where this is headed.

    Let me be clear, I didn’t ask people what they think of my work because I want them to like or accept me. I asked because I’m genuinely curious about what has some people so riled up.

    You, for example, seem perturbed that I haven’t investigated what sounds like a victim-blaming conspiracy theory with Dellen Millard as a champion of organized labour who gets bumped off by evil God squadders. I can live with that.

    What would really worry me was if you told me I had my facts wrong and gave a concrete example.

    Feel free to email me if you can actually tie these supposed “union busters” to the murder in question.

  4. People on public forums and comment sections (such as this one) can hide behind fake identities and get away with saying what they want without being accountable …. a reporter like Ann B. cannot.

    If everyone on public internet forums was required to give their full names 98% of the people would run and hide rather than be accountable for what they say .

    I dont think people realize the difficulties of being a reporter compared to readers like us who can pretty much say whatever we want

    The public demands , and is hungry for every snippet of information , but at the same time the public is reluctant to assist the reporter , or be named as a source.

    So the reporter has to spend a lot of time investigating to verify the information and most of the time they do a good job of it.

    Plenty of journalism diplomas around , and the news world has thousands of reporters , but it is the rare investigative reporter who has the talent to produce the articles we all want to read .

  5. I am glad you provided a picture of Madeline Burns Ann B. , she is a pretty lady and in some ways a victim as well.

    I expect she was having a reasonably smooth and private life until this whole thing put her in the spotlight . And who speaks for her ??

    She is probably in a lonely spot , and I think it is appropriate if a reporter kindly and delicately points out some of the burdens she must be going through right now . My heart goes out to her much the same way it does for Mary Elizabeth Harriman the wife of Colonel Russel William’s , those ladies are victims too and they occupy a very lonely place .

  6. Dear Ann,

    It seems as though you punish the people who don’t cooperate with you. You wrote a whole post about ‘Josie’ that provided zero information. Why? Because she wouldn’t respond to your request to do so? Is she obligated to? Does she really need to make a statement as you suggest, simply because Millard was an ex-boyfriend?

    Then you produce this:
    “Perhaps Josie’s chosen to remain silent because she’s planning on telling the story herself. Her bio notes her aspirations as a writer, her career path indicates ambition, and her current gigs are in the film industry. For all we know, she may already be working on the screenplay, casting in her head Carey Mulligan as Josie, Josh Duhamel as Millard, Nicole Kidman as his aloof mother, Robert Duvall as the father who died in a mysterious suicide just months before his son’s arrest, and Victor Garber, as Detective Kavanagh, the man in charge of the murder investigation.”

    Sounds like Josie isn’t the one casting in her head. Wow, is that the treatment one gets around this blogspot for not returning your messages? Unsubstantiated shaming? While we’re here, what makes you use a word like “aloof” to describe Madeleine Burns, out of the blue? Did she happen to ignore your messages, too?

    I don’t care if you are making money off this or not. A job is a job, just do it well and honestly. I do think you should think twice and even three times about the comments you make about innocent parties if you wish to be taken seriously.

    You feel that personal attacks were made against you for your reporting. I think when you put your opinions out there, they are subject to criticism and you have acknowledged this, however you are still looking for a scrap with your naysayers, as evidenced in replies to prior comments. Surely, we cannot judge you, yet you have judged someone who put themselves “out there” on the Internet (physically), because she refused to tell you her secrets so you can now share them “out there”. Are you any better? Your comments about this young woman in this post are about as low as it gets. Please remind us again how she posed nude time and time again, to diminish her credibility and her dignity in our eyes.

    I enjoyed some of your non-Millard related posts and I do wish you well.

    • Thank you for your interesting comment. It raises exactly the type of issues I hoped to see discussed.

      Of course Josie is not obliged to speak to me. But because she chooses not to speak doesn’t mean I have some kind of obligation not to write about her.

      And, yes, had she said to me, “I will tell you everything about Dellen Millard, but I want my name kept out of if it,” my reaction would indeed have been different. Of course, I would have tried to talk her into letting me use her name, but if she had inside info, I would have run with the story and Josie would have been one of those unpopular unnamed sources.

      While you see my actions in this case as punishing someone who won’t cooperate, I see it as failing to reach an agreement and both parties going their separate ways. As for whether there was new information, in the story, not so much, you are right, but the fact that Josie is alive and well was something at least.

      Also, as said in the story, Josie appears to have no regrets about posing nude. She wrote about it, using her real name, on internet chat boards. I have no reason to believe she’s changed her mind either given that she was recently on Twitter defending Miley Cyrus’ antics. Your assumption that her credibility and dignity are diminished by posing nude is yours not Josie’s nor mine. Yes, I don’t think taking off your clothes on the internet is a smart thing to do, but it doesn’t make someone a lesser human being in my eyes. It would be pretty obvious to anyone who read Josie’s writings that she’s an intelligent young woman who follows her own course.

      As for Madeleine Burns, I described her as aloof because that’s the impression I have of her after talking to people about her. Could it be wrong? Yes, and if contradictory evidence comes to light, I will change it. But may I ask, why are you so convinced that Burns is not aloof? What evidence do you have of that I am wrong? And for the record, no, I haven’t contacted her or left any messages.

      Now we come again to another interesting point. Josie has written publicly on the internet about parts of her relationship with Dellen Millard as has another former girlfriend. Why do you feel it is “about as low as it gets” to point this out? This stuff is publicly available — why should those who are interested in Dellen Millard not be able to see it? Are we back to the days when only the press corps was allowed to know that JFK was a notorious womanizer and, by gentleman’s agreement, it was hidden from the slavering masses?

      Right now, I am holding back on publishing certain material, as I am waiting for a fuller story not just snippets. But I get the sense that the reason people who were (girl)friends with Dellen Millard don’t want to talk is the deep sense of shame they feel at having been close to someone who is charged with such a horrific crime. It undermines everything they thought they knew about their ability to form human relationships. It is not me who is “shaming” them. Shame is a natural reaction to such a situation as is denial. That they feel shame is obviously a consideration for me, but their reaction is not reason enough to prevent a compelling story from being told. A journalist must treat her subjects fairly, but her ultimate responsibility is to her readers.

      This is not meant to be the last word, but rather part of an ongoing back-and-forth discussion. As I said, these are thorny ethical issues and it is helpful to thrash them out. Maybe you will think further about the points I have just made and examine why your reaction to my writing is so negative. Emotionally, you clearly disagree with me, but what is the logical basis of your disagreement?

  7. Ms Brocklehurst: Sorry but I’m absolutely baffled by your interpretation of my post as having any reference to “a victim-blaming conspiracy theory with Dellen Millard as a champion of organized labour who gets bumped off by evil God squadders”. It’s nearly impossible to imagine how far such an absurd notion is from the intent of the post.

    • I would be more willing to accept your reportage if you would include at least some reference to the enormous influence of the evangelical Christian Reformed Church in, at the very least, the shaping of public opinion in this case. If you were to dig even further into this “religious” organization’s Hamilton “union busting” activities vis a vis the construction industry, you might find even more interesting fodder for your reports.

      OK then, please spell it out? What exactly has been the enormous influence of said church in shaping public opinion? What evidence of union busting do you have? And how does this have anything to do with Dellen Millard’s arrest?

        • I’m stymied and apparently my first interpretation (guess) at what it was all supposed to mean was way off.

          The only other thing I can think of is that organized labour is mad at union busting god squadders, therefore concocts elaborate plot, using Dellen Millard, to take revenge. How’s that?

  8. Ann please keep all information coming. This is a horrific crime which should never go forgotten. And yes, anyone related to or attached to smich or millard will and should be Questioned. we want to know what these “people” were! Millards mother was obviously oblivious to EVERYTHING. He was running things illegally at the hangar!! Cmon nobody had any idea what was going on?! I find that very hard to believe. Bring on the stories do not hold back. Oh and where is Laura? the incinerator was purchased summer of last year, about the same time Laura went missing? She wanted things from him he did not want to provide, she got in the way. HELLO people, wake up!!!! You are the only journalist keeping the public in the loop. Keep up the great work.

  9. I thoroughly enjoy your articles and think its fantastic that you are responding to all of the comments and criticisms. Keep up the good work. You are, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable and dedicated reporter following this story.

  10. A good journalist has integrity and a need to get to the truth. A good journalist is able to get their point across without stooping to the lows of smearing people who refuse to co-operate with the journalist by handing over their private lives, so that said journalist can brandish some fabricated version to the masses. Not to mention making judgement calls on someones mother. How do you know someone is ‘aloof’ ? Maybe she is sick and tired of intrusive ‘journalists’ from her days of being an animal activist….and avoids them like the plague ! Maybe her son has asked her not to be there at court ? Maybe she is there, and able to hide her identity? Maybe we should afford people their right to privacy and undeserved scrutiny? Maybe we should be professional and respectful when dealing with people and just maybe respect will be shown in return…..just a thought. !!! I also think Carlita has a point…regardless of whether it is being overlooked intentionally or otherwise… ….hardly a reason to junque it !!!

    • If you want to have a discussion about smearing, invasion of privacy, undeserved scrutiny, you’ll need to provide examples and explain them.

      Re “aloof,” I have no idea why you and Ernest consider this to be such a heinous insult. Grab a dictionary. I’d say the description there applies to Madeleine Burns. Or tell me why exactly you think it’s wrong. Don’t just insult me.

      As for court, I haven’t said anything on the subject of Burns’ presence or lack of it there, so I’m not sure why you’re on about that.

      Re Carlita, if she has a point, it’s impossible to make out what it is. Lots of reporters would love a big scoop about this story. She should pull a deep throat — you know, cough up the proof — instead of talking in ridiculous riddles.

      And speaking of ridiculous riddles, “junque it,” for readers who are not in on the “joke,” is part of the email address Carlita provided.

      • None of the following relate to Madeleine Burns . How do you get that she is : physically distant, emotionally reserved or remote, stood apart, apart (other than being able to get into her sons cell), unsympathetic, or supercilious in manner, attitude or feeling. When has she shown to be : reserved or reticent; indifferent or to have the reputation of being aloof.???? Aloof does not describe Madeleine Burns one iota….that is why its being questioned. I think any journalist should at least understand the words they choose to use. That is not an insult..it is a constructive criticism.

        a·loof (-lf)
        adj.
        Distant physically or emotionally; reserved and remote: stood apart with aloof dignity.
        adv.
        At a distance but within view; apart.
        [a- + luff, windward part of a ship (obsolete).]
        a·loofly adv.
        a·loofness n.

        aloof [əˈluːf]
        adj
        distant, unsympathetic, or supercilious in manner, attitude, or feeling
        [from a-1 + loof, a variant of luff]
        aloofly adv
        aloofness n

        Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
        a•loof (əˈluf)

        adj.
        1. reserved or reticent; indifferent: to have the reputation of being aloof.
        adv.
        2. at a distance, esp. in feeling or interest; apart: to stand aloof from one’s classmates.

        As far as Carlita’s post is concerned… maybe we should all google that which she describes…as a whole slew of info pops up on google search. I cannot understand how you, as a self professed investigative journalist, cannot see what is meant by her post…it is quite clear to me….As for her email address, I expect she believed as we all did upon posting that our emails would not be disclosed (and that would mean in part or in full imo) but I suspect that perhaps she won’t mind, as maybe she does not answer emails from a junque (junk) account ….JMO….

        • On what basis do you say none of the following relate to Madeleine Burns? From following the news? Or from personal knowledge?

          My description of Burns is based on talking to people who knew her. If you believe it is wrong, then tell me and use your real name just like they did.

          And stp playing games about Carlita’s “information” being easy to find. Fish or cut bait.

          Ditto the junque.it BS. You’re the one that brought it up not me.

          Finally, the purpose of this post was to engage constructively. If you can’t do that, you will be blocked.

          This is strike two.

          • Actually Ann dear, we have no proof of those real names that you claim do we?

            I did not mention Carlitas email….you did !!! I made a reference to a saying ‘junque it’ that was not a joke, ‘inside or otherwise. You claimed it was a part of her email…. not I !!!

            I have been constructive hence the constructive criticism…. As a journalist you should be able to spot the difference. You have bashed my post and accused me of an inside joke which does not exist….. I have provided a dictionary explanation of aloof and said that it does not appear to describe Madeleine Burns… your sources have yet to be revealed….but we have to assume that they exist….how does that seem fair?

  11. Anne, Galaxy is just a troll doing what trolls do.

    He didn’t answer any of your questions, tried to get everyone off chasing their tails, then began calling names.

    Deflect, deflect, deflect. That’s trolling.

  12. Triple wow! I just visited your blog, took a minute to read all of the comments and am flabbergasted. I didn’t know that journalist could come under such attack! I don’t usually read, let alone comment on blogs or articles by journalist that I don’t think are satisfying my needs as a reader. I have a hard time believing that these comments are from real people.
    After following Tim Bosma’s murder closely for months now, I’ve realized that you’re actually one of the only journalists that are shedding some light on the depth and complexities of this case. I do feel sorry for Dellen’s mother, but wasn’t Tim’s truck found in a trailer in her driveway? It wasn’t the media that tied her to the case, rather, it was her association with the “man” who is now charged with first degree murder that brought her into the limelight. The media is simply investigating and covering the facts.
    Suggestions that the Church where the “victim” attended somehow has a role to play in this whole mess isn’t very nice at all. Tim Bosma was viciously murdered and all of the wonderful people who attend that Church are still mourning. The police have arrested 2 individuals and the Church is not implicated. I find statements like the one above slanderous and I’m not a member of that Church. I don’t know why someone would say that?
    I actually like reading information that is new instead of the repetitive articles. Your articles have given me a tremendous amount of insight into the death of Tim and the disappearance of Laura. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people screaming on-line about the publishing of a pictures, the act of investigating or the selling of news articles by professional freelance journalist. Kind of weird. Seems to me that there may be a personal connection.
    Keep the articles coming! I know I’m not the only “Hammer” reader that you have!

  13. Hi Ann,
    I have really enjoyed your posts, too. I’ve been following this case fairly closely since Tim’s abduction and am glad to see reporters like you who are keeping this story in the news.
    Since you’re asking for feedback I will just mention that I feel that posting M. Burns’ picture was unnecessary and not in the best of taste. Arguing that some of the public is interested in that picture does not seem like logical reasoning to me. The public is interested in photos of any number of subjects that simply do not need to be posted for various reasons. Saying that other media outlets are posting the picture so why shouldn’t you, seems like juvenile reasoning to me – “Mom, the other kids are all doing it!” 😉
    Again, I just mention this because you are asking for honest feedback. I have been reading your blog posts in regards to Tim Bosma’s murder since your blog first came to my attention. I have found your posts interesting, and see nothing untoward about you asking for information, making money, or any of the other topics you mentioned with exception to posting the picture of one of the accused’s mother.

    I’ll look forward to more posts from you in the future.

    Oh, and PS. – I think an earlier poster is trying to draw connections between the CLAC and Tim’s murder. I have no idea where they are going with that, and suspect their imagination is fertile. (The CLAC is a pseudo-trade union known for undercutting real trade unions and is informally affiliated with the CRC, and was formed by members of the CRC.)

    • Redheart, thanks for posting and making me express my thoughts more clearly, just as any good editor would do.

      You are, of course, right in saying “the public is curious” and “the Sun did it” are not justifications.

      But I didn’t actually say either of those two things. What I said was “if there’s a valid public interest, it’s okay to show someone’s photo.”

      I then failed, however, to define what “valid public interest” is, saying instead that I was not out of sync with other media outlets. That does look like “Mom the other kids are doing it.”

      So let me try again. I believe that the public’s interest in Madeleine Burns is valid given the role she has agreed to play with regard to her son’s affairs. Therefore, in my opinion, it is okay to show her photo.

      Mentioning what others are doing is not a justification in and of itself, and I did not intend it to be, but it is a way to test decisions. The kid who says “Mom, the other kids are doing it” is not automatically wrong and often has a point. Mom shouldn’t always ignore that rationale.

      That said, I realize I am still skating around what “valid public interest” is and that’s because there’s no easy answer. This is debated all the time in newsrooms on a case by case basis. No matter what standards of judgment you use, there’s always a certain amount of subjectivity involved. It’s a topic on which reasonable people often disagree, as we seem to.

      Thanks for the CLAC info. I’m off to Google.

  14. I am a little surprised that people think it’s wrong to show Madeleine Burn’s picture. I think she lost her anonymity when Tim Bosma’s stolen truck was found in her driveway. Whether she or any of the readers here like it, she is now involved in her son’s murder case. She may even have to testify in the trial.

  15. Why the disparate coverage of the two suspects? Shouldn’t Mark Smich’s relationships, family, upbringing, education, employment, etc. be open to public scrutiny as well?

    • Why not try your hand at answering those questions, Jane? Start the discussion. Tell us why you think the disparity exists.

      FYI, I have tried to interview people about Smich, but haven’t had any luck.

      And, of course, there’s the publication ban.

    • No big mystery here. Dellen Millard is way more interesting. Smich is your everyday loser. Millard is a mystery.

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