By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Verifying the Gloucester story

With the Gloucester “pregnancy pact” story up in the air, it’s too soon to offer a full assessment. But it’s not too soon to ask some questions about Time reporter Kathleen Kingsbury’s attempts to verify the story, and whether she should have done more.

I have not read and seen everything. Based on what I have seen, though, I’d say that she had enough to go with the story. She had Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan gift-wrapping it and handing it to her. She had Gloucester school superintendent Christopher Farmer essentially confirming it. There are very few news organizations that wouldn’t go with such a story given Sullivan and Farmer’s status as on-the-record, authoritative sources.

It now appears, though, that Kingsbury’s reporting may have been accurate but not entirely true. And it raises the question of whether she was able to verify it, however tangentially, with any of the seven or eight young women themselves.

Kingsbury has not claimed to have interviewed any of them, but she has suggested rather strongly that she’s been in touch with them. In her original piece, she wrote:

The girls who made the pregnancy pact — some of whom, according to Sullivan, reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives and plans for baby showers — declined to be interviewed. So did their parents.

That tells me that Kingsbury knows their names, knows how to contact them and made the attempt. Even though none would agree to be interviewed, to me that adds credibility to her reporting. In her follow-up, Kingsbury says this:

None of the rising juniors TIME identified as being members of the pact have come forward publicly, but nine Gloucester High students have talked to TIME about the girls who decided to get pregnant. Some described the pregnant teens as having little parental supervision. “They could stay out all night if they wanted,” says a classmate, whose parents requested that she not be identified by name. Others noted a herd mentality. “I think the plan was a lot about peer pressure,” says Nicole Jewell, a rising junior who describes herself as being friends with some of the girls involved. “But a lot of girls were excited to be a part of it.”

Again, Kingsbury is telling us that she knows who the girls are, and she even quotes one of their friends, on the record, who sort-of confirms the existence of the pact.

The plot thickens. Jeff Keating notes on the “Greater Boston” blog that Kingsbury told MSNBC she had “spoken to several of them myself” when asked if she had contacted any of the girls. As I’ve said, that’s consistent with the tone of Kingsbury’s two stories. (Keating also observes that NPR reported Kingsbury had actually interviewed the girls, but that may be an error on NPR’s part.)

Two more pieces to the puzzle. Today the New York Times’ Katie Zezima has an on-the-record quote from a 15-year-old named Nicole Mitchell, who backs up Time’s reporting in part and knocks it down in part:

Four teenagers walking around downtown Gloucester on Monday said they knew of two girls who were close friends and planned to become pregnant together, but no more.

“They wanted to get pregnant and raise their babies together,” said Nicole Mitchell, 15. “The two had a pact. The rest just got pregnant.”

And Jessica Fargen reports in the Boston Herald that Lindsey Oliver, herself a pregnant 17-year-old from Gloucester, appeared on “Good Morning America” today and denied there was any pact. Fargen quotes Oliver as follows:

There was a group of girls who decided that they were gonna — they were already pregnant before they decided this — that they were going to help each other with their kids so they could finish school … to do the right thing was their decision not let’s get pregnant as a group.

Interestingly, that fits perfectly with information I had picked up in the course of my own inquiries.

I’m not sure where this leaves us. I do think it’s telling that the media are mainly interested in whether these young women had promised each other to try to get pregnant. Even if, as Kingsbury acknowledges, that can never be proven one way or the other, what we do know is cause for concern.

The teenage pregnancy rate is on the rise in Gloucester. And at least some of the girls have been thrilled when they find out they’re expecting. That’s a pretty grim commentary on what they’ve learned from their families, their friends and — yes — from their school.

Wednesday morning clarification: Though NPR apparently erred in reporting that Kingsbury had “interviewed” the girls, this Herald timeline makes it clear that Kingsbury did say she had “spoken to many of them.” This is consistent with what Kingsbury told MSNBC.

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  1. Anonymous

    If the group of girls talk about getting pregnant and raising their infants together, plans of helping each other, isn’t a pact per se. But it’s pretty close to a distinction without a difference. The rather ice cold reciting of this story is disturbing to hear.

  2. Bob Collins

    As near as I can tell, the teen pregnancy rate in the school this year was on the order of about 3%, which is consistent with the rest of the state.Gloucester — and this will come as a shock to everyone — actually has a teen pregnancy rate, according to the state department of public health — that is below the statewide average.Of course, the problem with the reporting on this rate is that is that the percentages are always percentage INCREASES, which are misleading and make the situation sound worse than it really is. Anybody read Ray Lamont’s column in the Gloucester paper? It seems to be a source of original reporting that Time and others lifted.all in all, a lot of people didn’t let facts get in the way of a good story. Just another day.

  3. man who prefers Rockport over Gloucester

    Let’s not forget that thanks to all the media hoopla and “what a bunch of idiotic hick kids” response most of the country has had to it, that ALL of the pregnant teens now have a substantial incentive to lie out their ass about it.Or perhaps lie out another orifice, but I suppose that’s how the trouble started in the first place, eh? (my own little Carlin tribute!) I mean, would YOU now go out and say with pride that you were some dumbass hick kid from a hick town that was idiotic enough to make a pregnancy pact?!?! That’s essentially the message that’s been pounding out non-stop since the start.

  4. Stella

    This story resounds globally as a prime example of American stupidity. The comedy shows gloat with a ruthlessness not heard prior to our laundry list of failure spawned in the new millennium.

  5. BillD

    Dan – There are two pretty grim commentaries here. The first is, as you observed, these girls seem to have either not been offered or not absorbed valuable life lessons from their family and friends.The second is your expectation, and that of many others, that they should have also learned this in school. It’s interesting how much we bewail academic performance and standards across this country yet fail to consider the impact of schools being asked to deliver social services in place of stable family units. Instead of delivering the academic standards and performance we rightly expect school systems are being asked to take the place of broken, failing family units.The Gloucester story is but one of many examples of the results that our society’s choice to diminish the importance of stable family units has foisted upon us. Expecting that schools should be there to clean up that mess diverts their aim from the targets on which they should be focusing and also gives people a convenient bogey man to avoid looking at the harder truth.

  6. Anonymous

    Going along the lines of what Bob Collins wrote, I can’t believe this is unique to Gloucester, or even to New England. There are probably dozens of towns throughout the country that have much higher teen pregnancy rates right now, but for whatever reason, Kingsbury’s tip led her to Gloucester. The story was worth reporting, but so is a national follow-up.

  7. Brigid

    While some of Kingsbury’s sources looked solid, I would question using secondhand testimony (i.e. gossip) from high school students as supporting evidence. As the mother of two teenagers, I know that much of what goes around the school is wildly inaccurate.

  8. Bob Collins

    Some of the commenters are making the same mistakes that the original writer made. Because someone is pregnant as a teenager, it does NOT mean that there isn’t a stable family unit.The most disgusting thing about this story isn’t that girls got pregnant, it’s that so many people have been so quick to paint a scarlet letter upon them without bothering to educate themselves about whether it’s warranted.It’s also worth noting that — now that we’ve dispatched the notion of a plan — that the girls ARE having the babies. In the case of the people who were on GMA yesterday, they seem to even have a plan, they even — gasp! — have dreams for themselves and their child.They’re not condemned to hell merely because they’re pregnant. While I would certainly prefer teenagers not become pregnant, I’ve known enough of those who did get pregnant who raised wonderful children and came from good families.Is that always the case? No. But the rush to judgment on so many levels without education speaks far, far more about the judge than about the judged.

  9. BillD

    Bob, with all respect let’s look at what we have read so far;”Some described the pregnant teens as having little parental supervision. “They could stay out all night if they wanted,” says a classmate, whose parents requested that she not be identified by name. “”Families are broken,” says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. “Many of our young people are growing up directionless.” But Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. “They’re so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally,” Ireland says. “I try to explain it’s hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m.” Given those quotes and the fact that, let’s face it, anyone who bets on a pregnant teen as coming from a stable family is likely to get a higher payoff, it’s not an unfair assumption.And while we’re at it, let’s not run too far with the “they’re not condemned to hell” line. They may not be condemned to hell but their life road just took a significant turn uphill.

  10. Peter Porcupine

    Mr. Collins – Interesting fact.A couple of years ago (2005), I attended a briefing by Angus McQuillken of Planned Parenthood, to persuade legislators to vote against accepting abstinence funding for public schools. He had many charts and graphs showing how, with instruction-only sex education, the incidence of teen pregnancy was actually going down.What caught my eye were the Planned Parenthood statistics about the ages of mothers, esp. the older teen category of 19-21. Since we no longer stamp birth certificates ‘illegitimate’ in Mass., I was curious how they factored out young married mothers. The answer was – they don’t. They assume any infant born to a mother who becomes pregnant while a teen is a single mom in an unstable enviornment, since such a person obviously isn’t going to college and ahs thus blighted their life.So, a girl who marries and has a child right after high school is a dolt in the eyes of the birth control establishment. Good thing we don’t offer abstinence, as they probably couldn’t handle it anyway.

  11. Anonymous

    Bob C,I HAVE experienced this with a niece, (deliberate pregnancy at 15)on the North Shore. Unspoken is the effect on the rest of the family. Entitlement mindset, exacerbated by well-meaning but clueless DSS employees, (one of whom told my niece to wait until 3rd trimester to tell her single mother, to guarantee no abortion!) Pregnant child who proclaims her independence at 15 suddenly becomes a clinging vine when baby daddy splits. Suddenly it’s “WE have a problem.” (Imagine someone who just finished EIGHTH GRADE telling you that she is “pro-life”. Great time to have one’s first political opinion, huh?) Believe me, it’s worse than you think. (BTW, if GHS has 1250 students, 17 pregnant underclassmen would be a rate >5% by my reckoning).

  12. Bob Collins

    //Some described the pregnant teens as having little parental supervision. “They could stay out all night if they wanted,” says a classmate, whose parents requested that she not be identified by name.”I’ve been in the journalism business for 35 years and what you actually have cited as fact there is actually an unsubstantiated assertion (actually two) from an anonymous source. I realize that nowadays, people accept that as fact and then pile on by creating similarly researched “facts” and it goes on and on and on. But that’s not the way good journalism used to be done.We’ve already seen so far how an anonymous remark led to a vertiable worldwide panic about some “pact,” when — in fact — there appears to be no established fact that such a pact existed.See? We haven’t even learned the lessons we should’ve learned from three days ago. We just keep making the same mistake.Here’s the one fact that is unassailable: WE DON’T KNOW. We can only guess and make up scenarios and reach conclusions based on that we want to believe in order to make our conclusions stick.It’s a recipe for misinformation and ignorance. And the irony, of course, it comes in a thread in which we’re judging the fundamental intelligence level of someone else.The reporting on this has been absolutely godawful. But both “sides” in this debate have been able to pick and choose through the “someone-said-someone-said-something” muck to get out of it whatever they needed to get out of it in order to reinforce the belief they already had.That’s not exactly the education process at its finest.Hey, the Times did this a few months ago in intimating that John McCain had an affair with a female lobbyist. The people who were inclined to believe it, believed it without question.. and obviously without facts.The absolute absence of critical thinking by news consumers, coupled with the poor reporting of the journalists creates a threat to the ideal of an informed citizenry that is far, far more dangerous than a few girls getting knocked up.It’d be nice once in awhile to see someone get all worked up about THAT.

  13. Bob Collins

    //1250 students, 17 pregnant underclassmen would be a rate >5% by my reckoning).5% of 1250 would be 62. My math is basd on splitting the student body in half… 625 women (I realize this is not a given). 17 pregancies out of 625 is 2.7%.Unless I didn’t “carry the 1” somewhere along the line.

  14. liamstliam

    Dan: Excellent reporting here.Thanks.

  15. Anon 2:49

    Semantics. As unfortunate as any pregnant high-schooler is, pregnant 9th and 10th graders (“underclassmen”)are even more so, somehow, probably due to the fact that with a 14 or 15 year old, what we have in many cases is statutory rape. Splitting the student body in half should be done twice to get the figure for ” pregnant underclassmen”, admittedly a distinction without a difference. As I said above, the difference between an 18 y.o. senior becoming a mother prematurely and a 15 y.o. being instantly robbed of adolescence is a big deal, IMHO. An entire family unit comes under attack for the foreseeable future, all because of the petulant acts of a couple of selfish kids. You wouldn’t want to walk a mile in MY shoes.

  16. Billd

    Not to belabor the point, Bob, but I never stated what I provided as “facts.” I noted them as quotes. You used the classic technique of “You said” as a straw man and then go on to refute it when, in fact, that is not what was said. And, of course, you cited only the first quote (misdescribed as “fact” by you) to go further with your straw man argment.I noticed that the direct quote “Families are broken” from the Gloucester superintendent of schools quote went unchallenged by you. Less convenient to your straw man argument, undoubtedly.And I love how you use the “35 years in journalism” line. Not so subtle underlying message – leave the comment and analysis to us professionals.Well I won’t hang my arguments on my journalistic background – although I have one. I’ll hang my arguments on my concern for this country’s direction as a citizen.If that’s okay.

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