About that pregnancy pact . . .

teenpregnancyWhen Time magazine broke the story about the alleged Gloucester High School pregnancy pact, the entire media world erupted. It's been covered on all the cable news shows, papers nationwide and has even been covered by international media. It's kind of odd that this story exploded at the same time J.C. Penney's debuted their new teen sex ad to middle America. Anyway, while it didn't occur to me to question the scandalous pregnancy pact story, Daniel wisely pointed out that it was thinly sourced and based more on conjecture and hearsay than facts.

So it's interesting that TIME's follow-up more or less completely backtracks on the story. Not that you'd know it from the headline:

Gloucester Pregnancy Plot Thickens

If by "thickens" they mean "gets watered down" then I'm with them. Reporter Kathleen Kingsbury, whose first story blamed lack of access to contraceptives and the movie Juno for the pregnancy boom, admits the pact allegation came from one source and that the one source isn't so sure anymore:

Since Time first wrote last week of this "pact," as Sullivan called it, a media firestorm has hit this seaside town on Massachusetts' north shore. News outlets from as far away as Australia and Brazil have been quick to home in on the more salacious details surrounding these young mothers-to-be. But at a press conference today, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk emerged from a closed-door meeting with city, school and health officials to say that there had been no independent confirmation of any teen pregnancy pact. She also said that the principal, who was not present at the meeting, is now "foggy in his memory" of how he heard about the pact.

With more context, the story explains that some of the pregnant girls had been identified at risk of becoming teen mothers as early as sixth grade:

"What we've seen is the girls fit a certain profile," [Pathways for Children CEO Sue] Todd said. "They're socially isolated, and they don't have the support of their families."

The schools superintendent says that rather than a pact, some girls who were already pregnant decided to band together to stay in school and raise their children together. The follow-up story does a much better job than the first story of talking about the role that family values or the lack thereof might have played in the situation. Not that anyone will be reading this follow-up story but if they did, they'd hear classmates say the pregnant teens had little parental supervision, were permitted to stay out all night if they wanted and were afflicted by peer pressure. But the reporter reiterates that the school official who used the word pact now says he's not sure who told him about the pact or when.

Still a very dramatic story, sure, but not quite as dramatic as first reported. Also, the phrase "decided to get pregnant" is a bit odd considering that Time hasn't confirmed that with any of the girls in question. The New York Times' Lede blog noted that other media outlets were unable to confirm Time's sensational story:

Over the weekend, Mayor Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester told The Associated Press that an initial inquiry had turned up nothing to confirm the assertions of Joseph Sullivan, who was quoted as saying that 17 girls under the age of 16 had "confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together." Other officials backed up Mayor Kirk's statement today in comments to The Boston Herald.

Doubt was also expressed by the local newspaper that had been covering the surge in pregnancies long before Time. Patrick Anderson, the lead reporter on the story for The Gloucester Daily Times, told Editor & Publisher that "the idea of the pact is not something we had reported and not something we have found." The new element, he said, "took an already unusual story and turned it into something operatic."

It's just good to remember to express caution with sensational stories such as this. In addition to other great comments on Daniel's post, reader rw had a very important criticism:

This story also needs a reality check against what goes on in the nation's poor inner cities vis-a-vis the white suburbs. Teen preganacy rates in, for example, Washington, DC schools are 67 per 1,000 female students - four times higher than the "spike" experienced in this a white comunity.

I see this as another example of the news industry's love affair with middle-class white girls who find themselves in a bit of trouble, while minority girls who are having problems an order of magnitude worse than the girls of Gloucester are ignored. For another example, compare the hours of coverage of given to Elizabeth Smart vs. Erica Pratt.

It's an excellent point. The media obsession over this story relative to media concern over pregnancy rates in minority communities is the real scandal. And, as Daniel already pointed out, it's important that stories such as these don't neglect the role that values play in their creation.

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