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

Tag: Gloucester

In Gloucester, a murky clarification

Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan deserves a lot of credit for (more or less) standing by his words and standing up to Mayor Carolyn Kirk. But his statement, published yesterday in the Gloucester Daily Times, clarifies nothing, and leaves the story exactly where it stood on March 7, when the local paper first reported Sullivan’s concern that some of his students were getting pregnant deliberately.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the media from wrongly proclaiming that Sullivan is confirming a story in Time magazine, which reported last week and in a follow-up that the principal had revealed the existence of a “pregnancy pact.” As we all know, Time reporter Kathleen Kingsbury wrote that seven or eight young women had agreed ahead of time to get pregnant and raise their babies together. That very specific allegation is what set of a media feeding frenzy. And Sullivan, in his statement, doesn’t address it.

Let’s deal with Sullivan’s statement first. Here is the heart of it, as he describes the interview Kingsbury conducted with him:

Her direct question to me was whether I thought the distribution of birth control prescriptions or prophylactic devices at the Health Center would have prevented the spike in the number of pregnancies that have been reported this year. I told her “no” because my sources had informed me that a significant number of the pregnancies, especially among the younger students, were the result of deliberate and intentional behavior….

I honestly do not remember specifically using the word “pact” in my meeting with the Time magazine reporter, but I do specifically remember telling Ms. Kingsbury that my understanding was that a number of the pregnancies were intentional and that the students within this group were friendly with each other….

I believe everything I told Kathleen Kingsbury was and is accurate.

What’s crucial to our understanding of the story is whether, as Kingsbury contends, the students set out ahead of time, by agreement with each other, to get pregnant. Sullivan doesn’t even mention that. Though he says what he told Kingsbury was “accurate,” he not only does not say that what she wrote was accurate; but he adds that he doesn’t know whether he uttered the word “pact,” which she quoted him as using. Thus he is openly questioning her accuracy, even as he appears not to be. As for his reliability on the underlying facts, Sullivan is not very reassuring, writing:

My only direct source of information about the intentional pregnancies at the high school was the former nurse practitioner at the Health Center. My other sources are verbal staff reports and student/staff chatter, all of which I have found to be very reliable in my experience as a principal and all of which I filter myself for accuracy and keep confidential.

This is old news, telling us nothing we haven’t known since March 7. That’s when Gloucester Daily Times reporter Karen Grieco wrote that the high school’s unusual spike in teenage pregnancies may have been at least partly the result of deliberate behavior. Here is the top of that story:

Pregnancies at Gloucester High School have spiked to more than three times the normal number this year, and anecdotes of girls deciding to intentionally become pregnant have been reported by one school official.

“To have this many is extremely unusual,” said High School Principal Joseph Sullivan. “The volume frightens me.”

To get to the bottom of the problem, Sullivan investigated and came up with a startling revelation: According to his conversations with upperclassmen, some younger students may be becoming pregnant on purpose.

Kim Daly, nurse practitioner for the high school, was unable to confirm specifics but did say that the majority of students reporting pregnancies this school year were in the younger grades.

This story had been out there for slightly more than three months on June 11, when, Sullivan says, he was told that Kingsbury was outside his office, hoping for an interview. Thus Gloucester’s very real social problems were already well-known at that time. The gasoline that transformed this into a media conflagration was Time’s one additional touch — that there was a “pregnancy pact.” It’s helpful that Sullivan confirmed 95 percent of this sad story in his statement yesterday. But it’s the last 5 percent that’s in dispute.

Even so, Sullivan’s statement is being taken as vindication of Kingsbury’s reporting, especially by Kingsbury herself. Taking a slightly different tack is the Boston Herald’s Jessica Heslam, who suggested on Wednesday that Time’s story was crumbling. Today she dutifully reports Sullivan’s statement, but I detect a whiff of skepticism.

The Boston Globe’s James Vaznis, too, fails to acknowledge that Sullivan’s statement doesn’t really address the heart of Kingsbury’s story. Vaznis also makes no mention of his own paper’s June 6 story, by Tania deLuzuriaga, which followed up the Gloucester Daily Times’ reporting about allegations of intentional pregnancies. That’s ironic, because Sullivan yesterday essentially confirmed everything that the Globe had a week before Time.

Which brings us back to where we were a few days ago. The one aspect of this story I don’t think anyone seriously disputed was the interview Sullivan gave to Kingsbury (although his statement now has me wondering). The real question, as I wrote on Tuesday, is what steps Kingsbury took to verify the information Sullivan gave her.

Though Kingsbury has not interviewed any of the seven or eight girls, she has claimed to have spoken with at least some of them. She implied that once again yesterday, writing, “So far, the students TIME has identified as allegedly setting out to get pregnant have declined to speak publicly about their reasons for doing so.”

On Wednesday, Kelly McBride wrote about the Gloucester story for the “Everyday Ethics” blog at McBride faults Time for running with the story strictly on Sullivan’s say-so. I’m not sure I agree. Sullivan was and is an authoritative, on-the-record source, and Kingsbury backed him up with similar quotes from the school superintendent, Christopher Farmer. Plenty of journalism, good and bad, has been produced with no more than that.

But now we have a situation in which Sullivan has confirmed everything except the most explosive element of the story, and we still don’t know what else Kingsbury has as verification. Of this we can be reasonably sure: There’s more to come.

More (less?) on the “pregnancy pact”

Gloucester Times reporter Patrick Anderson pours more water on the “pregnancy pact” fire.

By the way … sorry for the InstaPundit-style one-liners. I’m not really around today, but caught this and thought it was worth sharing.

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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