CAMBRIDGE — Was the national and global media fascination with Gloucester High School students' alleged pregnancy "pact" drawn in part from the race and color of the city's 18 pregnant teenagers?
That was the sense of several women who work with pregnant teens — and who turned out for a the big-screen premiere of the film "The Gloucester 18" Thursday night.
"I was disheartened that the media made stories about the pact rather than the issue," Consuela Greene, a member of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, said during a post-film panel discussion.
"When you have such an increase (in Gloucester High pregnancies from four to 18), there's a bigger issue there," said Greene. "But because it's a white town, people wanted to know why.
"I think race and class played a role in the media attention," said Greene, who is black. She suggested any such story — even if there were a pact — would not have drawn the same attention if it occurred in an inner-city, urban community.
At the standing-room only screening at Kendall Square Cinema, more than 300 viewers took in the premiere showing of "The Gloucester 18," which is getting support from the likes of former Gloucester High School clinic leader Dr. Brian Orr and the clinic's nurse practitioner at the time, Kim Daly.
The film, directed by Boston-based John Michael Williams and produced in part by Kristen Grieco, the Gloucester Daily Times reporter who broke the story of the spike in pregnancies in March 2008 — more than three months' before Time magazine's report of a "pact" sent the story around the world — comes on the heels of a maligned "fictional" film that aired in January on Lifetime Networks.
Despite her questions and concerns about the issue and the media coverage of the 2008 Gloucester saga, Greene applauded the 67-minute documentary, saying it delved into the real issues and explored what it means to be a teen parent.
Statistics show that blacks and Latinos are more likely to get pregnant, hence the fascination with the island community where the faces of the teenage mothers were not typical, she said. In Gloucester, the teens were white.
"Teen pregnancy hits all the hot-button issues in one place. It's sex, teens, race and class," said Patricia Quinn, executive director of the alliance, which organized the screening. "I think the film poses more questions than it answers."
Quinn opened the forum by asking freelance writer and social worker Anne Driscoll how she viewed the media's fixation with the Gloucester pregnancy "pact."
Driscoll, who was exploring the story for People magazine, was among the journalists who took an interest.
"I was part of the media deluge," she said. "I was stunned when I came to Gloucester because I couldn't walk five feet without tripping over a reporter.
"It was not a shining moment for the media," she said. "I saw journalists offering money for stories. I had reservations from the get-go. It didn't smell right. I was disappointed that the (Time) story ran without much corroboration. Clearly that word 'pact' sent everybody running."
Throughout the new film, Gloucester teens at the heart of the issue and others firmly deny the existence of any "pregnancy pact."
Greene, a prevention program coordinator for the alliance, said the idea of the "pact" and the media frenzy didn't sit well with most people in the field because the issue is very complex, and the stories focusing on the pact simplified the reasons for the teen pregnancies.
Sharee Gittens, who works with Family Service of Greater Boston, questioned why it became a story.
"The situation was blown way out of proportion," she said. "As an outsider looking in, and as someone who works with teens on a regular basis, it wasn't even noteworthy.
" The reason why it was newsworthy and made nationwide news is, that when you look at the community, Gloucester has always been painted as this lovely community that is suburban, a working-class town too, but a nice place to be."
That helped fuel the frenzy as to why this would happen in Gloucester, when in nearby towns, the numbers are far greater, she said.
There is an expectation that urban areas with minorities would have higher numbers, she added. And this film "broke some stereotypes," going beyond the typical portrayal of pregnant teens.
"In the selection of girls in the film, they all ran the gamut," she noted. "There was nothing about any of them that was the same. I was surprised to see there were some from two-parent families."
Gittens, who sat in the audience at Thursday's premiere, said she thought the film was well done.
"When people look at the issue of teen parents, they don't see it as an onion that has very many layers," she said. "I was very glad it was not a Hollywood reenactment. The film showed how complex the issue is."
Producer Grieco told the audience that the team of filmmakers wanted to investigate the story behind the sensational headlines.
"We thought it was an opportunity for the girls to tell their story," she said, acknowledging that media said things about the girls that weren't true, demeaning and even nasty.
Diana Makhlouf, director of the Malden Teen Parenting Program who sat on the panel, commended the film.
"At first, I was hesitant and worried about teen exploitation," she said, "but you did a fabulous job in portraying and capturing the teens' stories."
The film features interviews with a number of the girls who became pregnant during the 2007-2008 Gloucester High school year, and follows up with them after the births of their children. It includes some news and talk TV clips from that period, along with analysis from Orr and Daly — and talks with pregnant teens and teen parents in Lowell and Springfield as well.
During the discussion, one panelist commented that the teens in the film looked "lost" — a statement that drew a rebuke from Sarah Williams, who was a Gloucester High teen mom and is depicted in the film, and appeared to be the only one of the young Gloucester moms to take in the documentary's premiere and reception.
"I am not lost. I am going to college and working," Williams told the panel in one of the program's final comments. "We have a lot of structure in our lives. My partner, Pedro, is here with me now, and he also has a lot of structure.
"We have goals and dreams and are working to achieve them," said Williams.
Greene, who had a son at 15 and now works with teen parents, commented that teen parents can be good parents.
"There is life after pregnancy," she said. "It's a hard journey and you can't do it alone. But it needs to matter about what we can do to support them."
Quinn said the alliance hoped people seeing the film would understand the complexity of the teen pregnancy issues on a national basis, not just what happened in Gloucester.
"There isn't just one story about teen parenting," she said. "The film helps people understand these young people ...
"What I really loved about the film," she said, "is that it gave you the whole spectrum of who gets pregnant. I don't want anyone to look at a teen parent and judge them, not understanding the scope of the issue."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com.