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Blowback: Is it unfair to use anonymous sources?

My story Sunday about tensions between parents with small kids and other folks in public spaces generated a lot of comments and email, but the reaction that took me by surprise was a call from Mel Antonen, the father in Lincoln Park who I led the story with. Most of the comments I received from readers were sympathetic to him; after all, his three-year-old was jumped by a dog that wouldn't back off.

So I was surprised when Antonen told me he was upset about the way he was portrayed. Antonen, who happens to be a veteran journalist, made some valid points and raised important questions about the use of anonymous sources.

Q: What upset you most about how you appeared in the story?

A: There was some form of miscommunication with the reporter. I thought the story was about dog-child safety, not rights of parents and whether or not they can bring strollers into certain businesses and all of that.. I think those are separate stories. I was protecting my son from an unleashed dog. I didn't expect to be hammered by an unnamed woman who didn't have the courage to give her name. And, I didn't get a chance to respond, and that wasn't fair. I would have said that a 3-year-old boy's safety is more important than a dog running illegally through the park. I wanted to say that dogs and children are self-policed well at the park, and that the incident with my son, Emmett, was the first I have seen, and that woman was disrespectful, but not a snapshot of a typical dog owner on the Hill.

[The owner of the dog that jumped Antonen's son said some pretty inflammatory things about how people with children are "tyrants," and she asked to be quoted only by her first name because she didn't want to be seen as hostile to children.]

Q: What are your thoughts about quoting the dog owner without using her last name?

A: Quoting an unnamed source presents more questions than answers. It makes readers wonder why she won't give her full name instead of thinking of the issue at hand. I know there are times when anonymous sources are needed, but a dog-in-the-park story doesn't qualify.

Q: What do you think I could have done better in reporting the story?

A: The reporter was professional in every way and I respect that she has the courage to let me second-guess. A better example for her story would have been the parents that aren't watching their children, who then sometimes run up to dogs and provoke them. But, overall, the story created good public discussion, and that is the most important thing.

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By Annys Shin  | May 18, 2010; 12:46 PM ET
Categories:  The Blowback  | Tags:  Journalism sourcing, Lincoln Park  
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As a former journalist, I don't understand why the anonymous sources were used at all.

"Because people will think I'm mean for saying these things" is not a justifiable reason for quoting them without using their first and last names, per the usual Post style.

Posted by: bermanator34 | May 18, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree; a completely unnecessary use of anonymous sources.

Posted by: subwayguy | May 18, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I agree that it did seem to be two separate stories. However,
1. The dog owner was wrong: (a) unless it is a fenced "dog park" the dog should not have been off-leash and I can guarantee you that if a strange large dog jumps on me, much less my small child, in a public park, I am going to react VERY badly; (b) the fact that she was unwilling to give her name means she knows she was wrong; and (c) if nothing else, to get a kid to the play-area I assume one must walk through the park, which one should be able to do without being assaulted by a dog.

2. On the issue of where children should go (and I have three grown children and two young step-grandsons and have dragged them all over the place): owner-organized family happy hour? People without children either need to deal or wait until it's over. But I have no problem with bans on the giant strollers in public places/stores. You don't want to leave a $500 stroller? Don't buy one. Or since you seem to have plenty of money, buy a small cheap one for those outings. Yes, you have a right to bring your child with you, but not at the expense/comfort of the shop-owner/other people/fire regulations that require walkways to be clear.

Both sides need to get off the entitlement bus: kids get to go out in public, that's how they learn how to act; childless people learn some tolerance. The other side of that coin, however, is that the world does not revolve around your children; please learn where it is appropriate to take them (and with what accoutrements and entourage) and make an effort at remembering that not everyone thinks a whining child is adorable.

Posted by: IndolentCin | May 19, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

The man makes a good point. There was no need for an anonymous source in this story. If she didn't want to share her name, she shouldn't have been permitted to share her point of view.

But a tit for tat between the woman's view and the man's response was unnecessary as well. The situation spoke for itself and most people agreed with the point the man wanted to make without adding extra verbiage to the story.

Posted by: loved1 | May 20, 2010 6:23 AM | Report abuse

I posted on the original story and enjoyed this followup. I have also been sharing this story with my mother. I did this because I was raised by a family who strongly believed in the "adults only" arena and I was curious to see what her response would be. As I predicted her reponse was "there are places for adults and places for children. Adults who have children give up certain adult pleasures when they become parents unless they hire a babysitter. There need to be firm lines drawn with parents and with children and those lines should not be crossed." I remember being left with the babysitter so my parents could have a night to themselves. I never remember my mother engaging in play activities with the children, those were for the children and my mother spent her time talking with other mothers present, probably about us, and we never minded. In fact, it was nice not to have the spotlight on us all the time; it meant I could torture my younger sister without my mother knowing what I was doing. There will always be discord amongst people who don't or aren't willing to discuss reasonable solutions to problems. This country is suffering greatly from a sense of entitlement and there is a huge lack of disrespect and inconsideration for anyone who doesn't feel the same as the status quo. "Do unto others" has taken a backseat to "my way or the highway". This discussion has just reaffirmed it in my mind.

Posted by: RNtravelgnome | May 22, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

I read the original story and my take was the Mr. Antonen was just a dad protecting his kid.

The woman probably thinks her dog is totally harmless and wouldn't hurt a flea. And that is probably the case, but there was not anyway for Mr. Antonen to know if that was true or not. He did what most parents would do.

On the issue about where kids should go IndolentCin nailed it. Kids need to go out in public, they need to be socialized.
But they also need to be supervised.

If I'm in a public place and a kid is being unruly I don't blame the kid.
It's on the parents. Even then in most cases I can't get ticked off about it. Most parents are concerned and are not out to ruin someone else's evening.

When I do get ticked is when the kid is going wild while mom is busy on the cell phone on an obviously social call, and dad is tapping away on his BlackBerry, oblivious to the situation.

I have an admittedly somewhat unusual friend, Peter, who found a solution to one of the more common situations.

We were in a diner, sitting in a booth. In the booth behind Peter there was a man w/ his young son, and a woman sitting in the seat across from them.

As toddlers are prone to do, the kid kept looking over the booth. No big deal, and it was cute for a few mins. The looking progressed to reaching and then trying to pull up on the back of the booth. Both the man and the woman seemed to be in another world, not a word from either of them.

After a couple more mins, Peter picks up his plate, stands up, walks over, sets his plate on the couple's table and asks the woman to slide in, saying that their kid had invited him to join them.

Peter gave them a couple seconds to get over being dumbfounded, and then returned to our table. Junior was well behaved for the rest of the meal.

Posted by: BEEPEE | May 24, 2010 1:20 AM | Report abuse

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