AS NEWS REPORTS over the last three days have noted, reaction to this newspaper's account of an 8-year-old heroin addict has been enormous -- including deep official and public concern about the life of the child described in the story and his identity, which was not disclosed. Why, people inquire, did the newspaper refuse to divulge the identity of this boy or the drug pusher/"stepfather" who started this child's drug dependency three years ago and who now maintains it?

The particular problem has now been mooted by the city's discovery, through other channels, of the boy's identity. But here was the newspaper's problem: no article about this child's tragic circumstances could have been written if reporter Janet Cooke had not agreed to protect the confidentiality of her news sources. And what if there had been no story at all? Would the public know or care at all about what is happening to this boy and others like him? Before the story was published, no one was looking for him -- nor was there any public outcry to crack down on this revolting form of child abuse.

So it was not a case of a reporter's coldly ignoring a child in deep trouble nor, as one city official characterized it, a case of "negative journalism" that "further demeans the black family, the black children." Quite asise from the cruel tone of that critique of a reporter's work, what could conceivably be more "demeaning" to any family, any children anywhere than the apread of a deadly drug culture to small children who cannot possibly know better?

What people and public officials know far more graphically today is that there was and is a story to be told. Maybe now more of the people who have been around these children -- those who didn't, couldn't or wouldn't tell this story -- will be moved to do something about it.