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Public Editor Public editor: With an allegation, names may not be needed

Emergency workers continue the search for victims Jan. 25, 2014, in L’Isle-Verte, Que., at the scene of a fatal fire at a seniors residence.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The death of so many seniors at the home in L'Isle-Verte is an almost unimaginable tragedy for the entire community and, of course, all of the friends and family members of those who died or are missing.

Globe and Mail reporters have covered the story with sensitivity and included in the coverage have been tales of grief and heroism and stories urging government action.

One reader was unhappy with this story on the weekend. And this one from Saturday online. It referred to a rumour of smoking by one of the seniors, believed to have died, and how difficult that rumour was for his grieving family.

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"Reporting that there are rumours is one thing. Digging deep into smoking habits, and feeding the rumours, is another. It's a horrible thing to do while freezing firefighters are recovering bodies," the reader said.

Reporters need to dig into possible reasons for a tragedy even while the recovery is going on. That is part of everyday journalism.

In the first story, a staff worker at the residence told reporters that he was 95 per cent sure the source of the fire was one of the resident's smoking. Then other media outlets found out the name of the senior and published it. That allegation and the senior's name were well known within the small community.

The weekend coverage was widespread and, in the midst of it, the senior's son came out of his home to talk with the media and gave a tearful interview.

Generally, this newspaper does not like using anonymous sources or not naming individuals, unless there are compelling reasons to do so.

Still, I think that there should have been a discussion about whether it was necessary to name the man, given that the story was based on an allegation. And I think "allegation" would have been a better word to describe the situation than "rumour."

Would anything have been lost by describing the senior and his son and not using their names? Would that make sense when the names were well known in that community? I know it goes against normal journalistic practices, but I think that there are times, such as with an allegation, when names may not be necessary. Of course, every instance has its own complexities, but taking a few minutes to discuss this would, in my mind, have been a good idea.

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You can contact me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com or on Twitter @SylviaStead

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