20-year-old Matthew Flugence told Jefferson Parish, La., police that he killed 6-year-old Ahlittia North this past July, the police say. He also said the child asked him to have sex with her on the day she died. Here’s how The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune played the story on the front page of its “street” edition Thursday:
Paul Purpura’s story begins with Flugence’s account of his alleged seduction by the child:
Booked with one of Jefferson Parish’s most heinous child slayings, Matthew Flugence allegedly confessed to a detective that 6-year-old Ahlittia North seduced him behind a row of Harvey apartment buildings, spreading out a blanket on the ground and enticing him into having intercourse.
“In his words, the little girl, she wanted to have sex with him,” Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Detective Travis Eserman testified Wednesday during a preliminary examination.
The detective said Flugence told him he had sex with the girl on July 14, the day she was killed. “That’s when he snapped,” Eserman testified. Flugence stabbed her four times and watched her fall to the blanket writhing in pain, Eserman testified.
Amid spirited discussions of how much of this planet’s space Flugence is wasting, some commenters found the story’s structure and headline to be tone-deaf. One commenter wrote: “featuring these sociopathic rantings so prominently is completely disrespectful to the memory of this murdered child.”
Reached by email, Purpura told Poynter “I’m sorry, but I have nothing to say about why I approached the Flugence story as I did.” He hadn’t read comments on the story, he continued, “But generally, I’m not surprised by what people post.”
When journalists write about sexual assault, it matters how they frame the crimes in question. In 2011, The New York Times drew criticism for a story about an assault on an 11-year-old girl that many thought focused on the problems facing the young men accused of the acts. (Bill Keller, then the paper’s executive editor, called the story “ham-handed,” and a follow-up story corrected — and also perpetuated — some of the original problems with the piece.)
In a piece on the “grammar of assault,” Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore wrote about a North Carolina paper that changed how it framed its story about an assault on another 11-year-old: “Mother finds daughter performing sex act on man staying in home,” the story’s original headline read.
Reached by phone, Poynter’s Kelly McBride said the Times-Picayune was right to relay Flugence’s claims about being seduced by a child. “But you do have a responsibility as a reporter to bring more context to that claim,” she said. It’s easy to find an expert who will tell you what Flugence claimed is “impossible” and “delusional,” she said. Ahlittia’s autopsy “revealed no evidence of sexual activity,” Purpura reported.
If you don’t prominently refute such claims, McBride said, you can reinforce the thinking of people “who might think that a child can seduce an adult.”
Ahlittia had a short and awful life, Danny Monteverde reported in the New Orleans Advocate in late July. Police in the Baton Rouge area suspected her stepfather had sexually abused her but couldn’t make the case, he wrote.