Sep
01
2008

Media's 'Girls Gone Wild' Fantasies

Pregnant girls ignored in story on ‘pregnancy pact’

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/MestreechCity

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/MestreechCity

When Time magazine (6/30/08; online edition, 6/19/08) reported that “nearly half” of 17 pregnant teenagers at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts had made a pact to have children simultaneously, corporate journalists latched onto the story and scurried to express their dismay on newspaper pages, blogs and 24-hour cable news.

Time’s article, which reporter Kathleen Kingsbury largely sourced to school principal Joseph Sullivan, told of a group of girls who repeatedly visited the school clinic for pregnancy tests. The girls, according to the principal, “reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives.” And “the story got worse,” Kingsbury reported: One of the fathers was supposedly a 24-year-old homeless man.

But even as other outlets were reiterating Kingsbury’s claims, the story was unraveling. Within days, the allegation of a “pregnancy pact” appeared questionable at best. At a press conference, Gloucester’s mayor denied that there was evidence of a pact and said the principal’s memory was “foggy” as to where he had gotten his information (New York Times, 6/24/08).

The principal, though he did not recall using the word “pact,” stood by his assertion that some girls had intentionally become pregnant. While he originally cited the school’s clinic as the source for his claim, he later said it was also based on “student/staff chatter,” although he declined to provide specifics (Boston Globe, 6/27/08). Dr. Brian Orr, the clinic’s medical director at the time, and Kim Daly, its former head nurse, said they had never heard of any such pact (New York Times, 6/24/08).

From the start, Kingsbury’s article was dubious. The school first became an object of national media attention when Orr and Daly resigned on May 23 in protest over the school clinic advisory committee’s unwillingness to allow the confidential distribution of contraceptives, despite the quadrupled pregnancy rate (NBC Today, 5/28/08; Boston Globe, 5/29/08). It was this story that initially attracted Kingsbury’s attention (Time, 6/23/08; Pandagon, 7/1/08).

While investigating the causes of the school’s increased pregnancy rate, Kingsbury spoke to principal Sullivan, who became the lone source for the pact claim—a convenient story for an administrator facing scrutiny over the school’s sexual health policies. As Time.com (6/23/08) reported: “Principal Dr. Joseph Sullivan said he was surprised that no reporter had approached him for his take on the matter. If they had . . . he would have explained straightaway that ‘a lack of birth control played no part.’”

Journalists might have been suspicious that Kingsbury was unable to source the “pact” story to any of the 17 pregnant girls. According to the article, they and their parents declined to be interviewed. Without explanation, the fathers, too, were absent from the story. The only student voice was that of Amanda Ireland, a teen mother and graduate of Gloucester High, whose two sentences shed little light on the incident.

As the story spread, the gaps became clearer. The number of girls in the supposed pact remained vague. Time had reported that there were 17 pregnant girls at Gloucester and “nearly half” were in the pact. The New York Times (6/24/08) said that nearly half of 18 were part of the pact, and the Chicago Sun-Times (7/7/08) reported that 14 girls were involved.

CNN (6/22/08) claimed that “the pact is so secretive, we couldn’t even find out the girls’ names”—which ought to have rung alarm bells, since, according to the principal, “chatter” about the pact was so widespread, it had reached even him.

Less than a week after the Time article was posted online, other outlets featured Gloucester students who knew the pregnant girls and denied existence of a pact (ABC News, 6/24/08; New York Post, 6/29/08). Throughout the coverage, the pregnant girls themselves were conspicuously absent, with few exceptions. ABC News (6/24/08) did interview one of the girls, who revealed that there was indeed a pact of sorts among a group of girls—an agreement to help each other care for their children—but it was made only after they’d become pregnant.

This story of unbridled teenage sexuality was easy material for sensationalist journalism, distracting most reporters from asking the obvious questions. The story of the pregnancy pact played into stereotypes of women as manipulative, irrational and essentially driven to reproduce, and as such, placed sole responsibility—and blame—for the pregnancies on the girls.

For conservative pundits, the idea that “these girls wanted to get pregnant” (Fox News, 6/19/08, 6/20/08) had the added benefit of supporting the notion that teen pregnancy is simply a matter of (female) morals, not education or access to contraception. As Carol Platt Liebau wrote on the conservative blog Townhall (6/19/08):

How, exactly, would “easier access to birth control” have impacted this situation? . . . The problem underlying teen pregnancy isn’t practical (access to or knowledge of contraceptives) or even biological. It’s an ethical, moral and spiritual problem.

Men’s News Daily (6/19/08) blamed the incident on “liberals” like Barack Obama, who “pandered to female voters by solely blaming men for the epidemic of fatherless homes” during his Father’s Day 2008 speech. Other “experts” blamed increased teen pregnancy on pop culture—movies like Juno and 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears’ recent motherhood (ABC News, 6/20/08; CNN, 6/23/08)

Meanwhile, meaningful discussion of the fathers’ roles was conspicuously absent. A handful of outlets briefly discussed this aspect of the story, with attention focused almost exclusively on the sensational case of the one father who was identified as homeless (L.A. Times, 6/20/08; CNN, 6/23/08; Boston Globe, 6/24/08; Fox News, 6/24/08).

Sociologist Mike Males pointed out in an L.A. Times op-ed (7/13/08) that the issue of sex between adolescent girls and adult men is generally labeled an issue of “teenage sex,” rather than “adults impregnating teens.” That both lays the blame on the females in the story and fits in with the media’s tendency to characterize teenagers as dangerous and out of control, a strategy that Males has argued (Extra!, 3-4/94) is used to make adolescents “the latest scapegoats for problems that affect society in general.”

That media tendency was on full display in the demeaning characterizations of these young women as “girls gone wild” (National Post, 6/25/08) who “stayed out all night” (Time, 6/23/08), “baby mamas” (New York Post, 6/22/08; Miami Herald, 6/28/08) and the like. Articles appeared under headlines like “Shall We Go to the Mall—or Get Pregnant?” (Salon, 6/20/08) and “Knocked Up H.S. Girl: ‘Sweet!’” (New York Post, 6/22/08).

The London Guardian (6/27/08) cited experts who suggested that the media frenzy was a “manifestation of adult fears of adolescent sexuality.” And indeed, mainstream journalists deemed the story “shocking” (CBS News, 6/20/08) and “disturbing” (CNN, 6/20/08). Media’s alarm also betrayed a racial subtext that ran through most coverage. The Time article pointed out that Gloucester is a “mostly white” town, and subsequent coverage consistently mentioned that these girls were white (e.g., MSNBC, 6/19/08; NBC News, 6/20/08; Christian Science Monitor, 6/25/08)—a point that seemed to imply that teen pregnancy is only expected of young women of color.

The conversation this story initiated was largely centered around the idea of shame. “What happened to the shame?” Heather Nauert asked despairingly (Fox News, 6/20/08). Michael Graham argued in the Boston Herald (7/8/08) for more “mockery”: “When the same girl shows up at the school clinic for five pregnancy tests in one month, shouldn’t somebody be mocking her for it? In fact, isn’t promoting shame through mockery our civic duty?” The Boston Herald (6/22/08) even declared in its news section: “So obviously what’s changed . . . are cultural attitudes about single motherhood. With the best of intentions, the women’s movement destigmatized it. We went too far.”

While these reporters touted the merits of shame, they blamed Gloucester High for having been too accommodating to teen mothers, pointing to the school’s on-site daycare facility as evidence (e.g., Boston Herald, 7/8/08). Hannity & Colmes (6/20/08) proclaimed that “strollers run rampant in the hallways,” while elsewhere on Fox News that same day, Gloucester High was lambasted for its “pro-teen birth” agenda. Few mentioned that the school’s daycare facility can only accommodate seven children (New York Post, 6/22/08).

Gloucester High’s sexual education program was widely discussed in media coverage: Sexual education classes end in ninth grade, the school does not provide contraception without parental approval (Time, 6/18/08) and government funding for sex ed has been cut (NPR, 6/24/08). But the conversation remained superficial. As columnist Ellen Goodman wrote (Boston Globe, 6/27/08), most media limited their analysis to Gloucester, rather than examining teen pregnancy across the country—despite recurring mentions of the national 3 percent rise in teen pregnancies in 2006 (e.g., Chicago Tribune, 6/30/08). Rarely acknowledged was the fact that even with its quadrupled pregnancy rate this year, Gloucester still has a rate below the national average (Miami Herald, 6/28/08).

Rather than sensationalized reporting of “pregnancy pacts” and teenage girls having sex with homeless men, media could provide facts that help young people make decisions appropriate to their lives. Instead of scapegoating adolescents, media could engage them in a conversation that prioritizes, rather than silences, the voices of those at the very center of the discussion.