Pregnant in Gloucester: The Pack in Pursuit of the ‘Pact’

By Kelly McBride
Ethics Group Leader

Go to the homepage of the Gloucester Daily Times  and you will see everything you need to know about how the local newspaper has covered the story of a pretty big rise in pregnancies at the town high school.

Right there are all the stories the Daily Times has published about the phenomenon, news of which went global this past weekend after a national magazine reported the same story. Included in that list is a pretty good column by editor Ray Lamont explaining how the paper’s local story, which the paper had been reporting since March, became a global phenomenon in a 48-hour time span.

Back in March, Daily Times reporter Kristen Grieco wrote a fairly straightforward story about an unusually high number of pregnant girls at the high school. She never used the word pact. But she did quote both the principal and the superintendent as saying that it appeared several of the pregnancies were intentional. She followed that up with a story that gave readers a look into a day in the life of a high school student who is also a mom. Other staff writers covered the many public policy issues.

By last week, the number of pregnancies in the high school was up to 17. And Time magazine posted an online version of the story headlined “Pregnancy Pact at Gloucester High.” The online story has since been modified with the word “boom” replacing the word “pact” in the headline.

CNN reported the story, and posted an Associated Press rewrite of the Time magazine piece. And reporters from around the world converged on Gloucester.

On Thursday, June 19, “CBS Evening News” covered the story. Reporter Michelle Miller used that same word, pact, and it appears in the headline of the online story. Miller interviewed School District Superintendent Christopher Farmer. He described girls who wanted to get pregnant, but he did not use the word pact, at least not on camera.

By Monday morning, the mayor of Gloucester was holding a press conference denying the presence of a pact. And Time responded by defending its story with this paragraph:

[Gloucester High School principal Dr. Joseph] Sullivan told TIME on June 11, he’d have explained straightaway that “a lack of birth control played no part” in a quadrupling of the number of teen pregnancies at the school this year compared with last. “That bump was because of seven or eight sophomore girls,” Sullivan told TIME. “They made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.”
From the outside looking in, it appears there were two reporting failures.

First, sure the principal used the word pact and Time quoted him saying it. But there was no other reporting quoted in any of the stories that backed up the existence of a pact. No pregnant girls from the town describe an actual plan. None of the fathers describe unusual pressure or inconsistent behavior from the girls who allegedly want to be moms. There are a lot of people describing intentional pregnancies, but there’s a long way between intentional and a pact. This is especially true when you are talking about teenagers, who make a lot of plans they never execute and often suffer consequences for things they do without thinking at all.

Sources stay stuff all the time. A reporter’s job is to ask, “How do you know that?” rather than take them at their word. If that didn’t happen on the first level of reporting, it certainly should have triggered a more thorough review when that word “pact” was elevated to headline status.

The second mistake happened when other journalists echoed the word, and thus the faulty reporting, again and again and again, without backing it up themselves. AP, CBS, and CNN are all guilty of repeating Time‘s first mistake and thus magnifying the effect.

No one is denying that 18 girls at Gloucester High are pregnant by this week’s tally. It’s a problem that has the attention of the people of Gloucester and far beyond. But a simple breakdown of the reporting process led to a factual error that has the community rising up to defend its dignity.

That has brought unwelcome and unwarranted international attention that is distracting community members from such issues as how the high school day care will handle that many infants by the end of next year (it’s only licensed for seven) and where sexually active teenagers can obtain birth control (20 miles away).

Of course, there are many news outlets, in addition to the Gloucester Daily Times, that covered the story without using the word pact, including a Boston Globe story that ran on June 6.

Pack journalism has always been a risky proposition. These days, when so much news gets repeated without any independent verification, the flaws of pack journalism grow exponentially. This is not a problem unique to old-school professional journalists. As bloggers weigh in, talk show hosts sound off, and Internet users offer feedback, mistakes are repeated so often they become presumed fact, long after the original error has been corrected.

It’s easy enough to fault the correspondents who were tripping over one another in Gloucester. But at least they were trying to do original reporting. Still, it took the mayor, holding a press conference, to change the record.