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Coffeehouse coda: The anonymous girlfriend goes public

Last week, I got an unusual voice mail from an anonymous source. The source was upset. Not at me, she explained. But at herself. She wished that she had not turned herself into an anonymous source for my story just published on The Post web site.

I had just written an online-only article about her boyfriend, Daniel Zenobia, one of several profiles about ordinary people that we here at Story Lab wrote last week as part of our Coffeehouse Newsroom experiment. But my article about Zenobia did not include his girlfriend's name; she had demanded not to be identified, fearing that too many personal details would be tossed into the web’s vicious waters, opening her to public mockery. So when I saw her number pop up as a missed call on my cell phone, I grew nervous.

I suspect most reporters fear the worst when a source quoted in a story calls them so soon after the publication. My mind ran through all the various cringe-inducing possibilities. Had I made a mistake? Did I somehow blow her cover so that readers could figure out her identity? Were the online anonymous comments cruel, as they often can be?

I played the anonymous source's message and was shocked:

Hi Ian, This is Sara Tomme. I'm the girlfriend who thought the article was too personal yesterday. And there probably isn't anything you can do. But, I read the article…I think I was just too paranoid, thinking the worst was going to come out of it. And I really wish that I had allowed you to put my name in that article....I know that I hurt Dan by taking my name out of that and he was disappointed that I did that. I was wondering if there was any possible way for you to maybe add my name in there and email it to him or me? I guess I could do it but it might be cooler if you do it? You can completely ignore this request and I'll leave you alone after this. I feel awful for how I responded the other day and I am wondering if you can help me out...

In my ten years at The Post, this marked the first time an anonymous source called back after a story's publication to request that we go back into the original story and insert his or her name. But I couldn't go back and do that--it would alter the original article, changing the fact that the story's main character has a girlfriend who had not felt comfortable being named in a Post article about him.

I did have some sympathy for Tomme. I met her boyfriend last Wednesday morning at the Caribou Coffee in Fairfax Corner, picking him out randomly as the subject of a quick-hit feature for Story Lab's Coffeehouse Newsroom experiment. That morning, seven Post reporters fanned out to coffee shops across the region and had to file stories by 5 p.m. about someone or something at their assigned coffee shop. Zenobia, an occupational therapist, was an ideal character. He opened up about his father's declining health, his relationship with God, and his new girlfriend, who he has been dating for three months.

Drinking his French roast alone, Zenobia said he was waiting to meet Tomme and her work friends for lunch down the street. The meal, he said, was significant because it would be the first time he’d meet Tomme's colleagues. I wondered how his girlfriend's buddies would size him up. Seeking a short, amusing narrative, I asked if I could join them. Zenobia, an amateur cyclist and a sporting man, said no problem.

We arrived at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop and met Tomme, and her friends, who had no idea that a reporter would be joining them on their hoagie break. Everyone laughed. The conversation about NBC's "The Office" and MTV's "Real World" cast in Washington overwhelmed the awkwardness of my presence.

When lunch was finished, I scrambled back to the Caribou to write my story. I was crafting the lead about how the couple met through the online dating site eHarmony when I got a call from Zenobia. His girlfriend, he said, was angry. She didn’t want to be in the story. Then Tomme called. She was upset that she had had no warning that I'd be at the lunch. She asked that I remove her name, and that I not divulge any details about their eHarmony relationship. I consented, figuring that she was an ordinary person not accustomed to dealing with reporters or having her love life spilled out into the open.

So when I got her voice mail after the story was published, I wanted to know: Why exactly was she so scared of being named in the story? And why did she change her mind after the story came out?

In an interview, Tomme told me that she felt ambushed at the Potbelly lunch and didn't want to create an awkward scene by asking me to leave. She's never been written about before, she said, and she didn't know if she could trust me.

Her biggest worry? That I'd describe how they met through eHarmony. Tomme, 28, who graduated from James Madison University in 2004 and helps lead a Christian youth ministry, said she has felt embarrassed that she resorted to an online dating site.

"I knew Dan had mentioned that we met on eHarmony to you and I was so scared it was going to come out. I am still dealing with it," said Tomme, a technology company sales associate. Most of her friends, she said, are already married. "The norm was that you meet someone in college and get married. I thought that was going to happen to me, but it didn't. I know that God has a different plan for everybody, but in a way, you feel left behind."

Now, Tomme said, she realizes that how they met is part of their story.

"Last week's experience [with The Post] told me I needed to deal with that. I thought Dan had really good intentions. I am not upset about this. For me to grow, and to deal with what other people think, I need to get this out. When you keep things a secret, you give power to that secret."

By Ian Shapira  | August 4, 2010; 9:04 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism , More on the story, The Blowback  
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Truly fascinating.

Posted by: corones | August 4, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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