When are anonymous sources helpful?

On the front page of The Easton Journal, my hometown’s newspaper, this past weekend, was a story that immediately intrigued me because of its relevance to news that has been circling around the University of Massachusetts Amherst over the past several weeks. The story remembers a teenage boy, Evan Greene, who graduated from the same high school as me and died from a heroin overdose in January of 2014.

In the story, his parents describe him as “gentle…smart, handsome and popular,” and they discuss how they helped him to cope with addiction. According to the story, the parents are “…convinced the problem was bigger than Evan. They don’t blame him. They want to celebrate his life and find some ‘purpose’ in his death.”One of the biggest differences between this story and the one published in The Boston Globe in September is the fact that The Easton Journal identifies sources and the Globe story, on the other hand, controversially cites anonymous people.Stories about drug addiction and overdose almost always involve more than just the person who overdosed — these reports often include family members, friends who tried (or didn’t try) to help them, the person who sold them drugs and the friends with whom they used drugs.

In Easton and the surrounding towns, there is obviously some sort of drug culture, and by identifying a person who has died from an overdose, the story reaches out to those suffering and may have, perhaps, saved a life. By opening up to a local media outlet, Evan’s parents provided the community with an unusual service — they tell us that there is a drug problem in Southeastern Massachusetts and they have a firsthand account to share with us. In the article, his mom is quoted: “Some people won’t admit it when someone dies of drugs. They won’t talk about it. We’re not ashamed. It could happen to anyone.” This powerful statement opens up a discussion about addiction and recognizes it as a disease. It’s upsetting to think that the Greene’s story won’t reach people that far outside of Bristol county, whereas Logan’s story has been reported on various media outlets across Massachusetts and was even published on The Huffington Post. Logan’s story tells the public that there is also a drug problem at UMass and there is still most likely a group of people using heroin. It is possible these people interacted with Logan, so if the Globe identified him by first and last name, maybe the story would have touched more addicts personally and convinced them to get help. But, it is also possible that his death convinced addicts to go to rehab.

I would like to think that people who did drugs with Evan got the help they needed when they saw this story or heard of his death. But, who did Logan’s parents specifically help? Yes, the confidential drug informant program at UMass is now suspended and under review, but what about the friends who used drugs with him? Are they getting the help they need? I wonder how the community would have responded to the Globe story if Logan’s parents had said something like, ‘Hey, look, we were unaware that our son was suffering from addiction, but we are still proud of him and we love him and want to help others suffering from the disease.’ It seems the parents were only seeking revenge against the UMass Police Department. This isn’t wrong, as we all mourn in our own separate ways — but it is interesting to wonder how the outcome would have differed if they had been more open about their identities and more open about addiction as a disease. And how would it have differed if the Globe had published a photo of Logan along with the story? Maybe people would have recognized him and it would have brought the story closer to home.

The Globe story helps the community in a more abstract way, putting a program under review and raising awareness about heroin addiction. The story about Evan helps people on a more personal level, reaching out to his immediate family, friends and those who did heroin with him.

About Samara Abramson

Samara Abramson is a news reporter based in Massachusetts.
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