Don't take the bait 

In my hometown a few weeks ago, I ran into my friend's younger brother, who'll soon be in Jordan on a Fulbright grant. As with the first time he went to the Middle East, he'll be trying to improve people's access to drinking water.

At the end of our conversation, he told me to wish my sister whom he knew from high school a happy wedding day. She was getting married that afternoon, an event full of hope that was unthinkable five years ago, when her first fianc had been killed in Iraq.

Her guy now is fantastic, and their wedding was as well. A highlight for me was getting to see my three cousins, all of whom have graduated college or soon will; my aunt raised them largely by herself, after cancer took my uncle.

As the sun set, I mused over the most inspiring part of the day: Somehow, I'd pushed through the gridlock of baby strollers and out-of-work fishermen clogging the bridge that separates my town from 21st-century society.

I'm from Gloucester, Mass., home to June's top scandal, the "pregnancy pact" that, apparently, wasn't. The headlines have subsided since the story got more confusing did 18 girls, or even nine or 10, decide to get pregnant together? Or did they agree to raise their babies together after getting pregnant? but the 934,000 hits when you Google "pregnancy pact" and "Gloucester" will likely remain.

Many of these links characterize the city as "decaying," "hard-luck" or some other such term. Though most expectant mothers aren't talking on the record and though the principal, superintendent and mayor can't explain the pregnancy spike reporters have repeatedly implied a weakened economy has a lot to do with it. Or they've just come right out and said so.

"Status in Gloucester is hard to come by," reported Michelle Miller on the CBS Evening News. "The once-thriving fishing community has seen jobs drift overseas. Economic depression has left many teens trying to fill the void."

Said Kathleen Kingsbury, the Time reporter who started it all, on MSNBC: "It has a long tradition of fishing industry that has really gone away in recent years. ... The jobs that these young people thought they were going to have are disappearing. And so none of them have a very strong life plan. Being a mother became something they can do, gave them an identity."

You know how 15-year-old girls can be. Without a trawling job, they'll go right to getting knocked up.

What's happened is clearly alarming, and journalists should ask questions. But they shouldn't be answering them, too. The oversimplification of a complex story with its accompanying desk-jockey sociology and punditry has frustrated me as a Gloucester native and embarrassed me as a journalist.

It's also enlightened me a bit, as a Springs resident. We fume over media labeling us a city of 500,000 intolerants, and over how James Dobson's flapping mouth, or unsightly arrests of peace demonstrators, define us to the world.

But this pregnancy story reminded me: It's not unique to us. Listen to Michael Costello, executive director of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, based in Gloucester. He says the fishing industry, supposedly the crutch kicked out from underneath today's high school students, hasn't accounted for more than 20 percent of Gloucester's economy since before these kids were born. Plus, most students today don't grow up wanting to "work on fish," as the old expression goes.

So why, Costello asks, "do we move from one situation to drawing a whole set of conclusions which would tend to vilify us, and picture us to be something most of us feel we're not?"

Something to consider. Actually, something to fight. Take the same skepticism you employ when reading about our city in the mainstream media and apply it to the next internationally fascinating scandal. Assume that, as is true for Colorado Springs, no one place or people can be easily defined. Ask yourself how the reporter might really know what he or she is talking about.

Better yet, ask that reporter. Write letters. Call into talk radio.

And if you see the Indy jumping to conclusions, call us on it. Please. Now more than ever, I shudder to think that at our worst, we can be part of the problem.

Kirk Woundy is managing editor of the Independent.


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