On Sunday, the Boston Globe did something that raised the eyebrows of many of its readers: It named the informant who put FBI investigators onto Whitey Bulger's case, and subsequently collected the $2 million reward. The story provided the most in-depth account yet of the arrests of Bulger and his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. At Media Nation, Dan Kennedy called it "the definitive look at Bulger and Greig's life on the lam." But it does raise the question of whether it was appropriate for Globe journalists Shelley Murphy and Maria Cramer to name Anna Bjornsdottir, the former Miss Iceland who befriended the couple and later outed them to investigators. Some readers were outraged at the revelation, but Kennedy argued that its newsworthiness trumped privacy concerns. Either way it seems clear that, while the rest of us just learned Bjornsdottir's name, Bulger has probably known who gave him up since shortly after his arrest.
In the comments section of the Globe's feature, readers took umbrage to its reporters identifying Bjornsdottir: "Do you people not see a problem with outing FBI informants? I'm no fan of Whitey's, but that seems like a good way to ensure nobody else cooperates with the FBI," wrote one. "Am I the only one who is a little uneasy about the Globe publishing the NAME of the woman from Iceland, the informant?" wrote another. The Boston Herald and its commenters also took shots at the Globe, pointing out that the FBI had "vowed confidentiality to the tipster," and citing prosecutors' concerns about a "chilling effect" on future informants.
Responding to the criticism, Globe investigative editor Scott Allen told Fishbowl LA on Monday, "if we thought publishing her name would have jeopardized her, we would not have done so." In its own pages today, the Globe further justified its decision to name Bjornsdottir.
"We were confident Whitey Bulger and Cathy Greig knew exactly who the tipster was," said Jennifer Peter, the Globe’s deputy managing editor for local news. "We asked people directly involved in the investigation if she would be in danger if we named her. No one told us she would be in danger at all."
Dan Kennedy, who provided comment for the Globe on Monday, expanded on that sentiment in Media Nation on Tuesday, writing that "newsworthiness should in most cases trump privacy concerns." He explained why:
If that sounds cold, journalists reading this know how many stories would never see the light of day if they respected the wishes of family members who contact them. The idea is to treat people with dignity and respect, and not to make decisions that are gratuitously cruel — but to report the news. Given all that, I think the Globe made the right call.
It is the job of journalists to include all the information they reasonably can when reporting a story, and as as the Globe's staff points out, they felt confident Bulger already knew the identity of the tipster. The fact she was a neighbor from Iceland had come out early in the saga (though some, including the Boston Herald, claimed that was a lie on the part of the FBI) and came up in the news cycle again when the FBI announced it had paid out the reward.
Based simply on the information that the tipster was from Iceland and had lived in Santa Monica, it seems fair to bet that Bulger knew her identity long before the Globe did. As Sunday's story points out, Bulger and Greig socialized little with their neighbors and were particularly close with Bjornsdottir. There just aren't enough Icelandic expatriates living in Santa Monica to leave any confusion for Bulger as to who it was.