On December 17, a site called InSerbia.info published a 400-word piece under the sensational headline:
Seven Primary School Students Pregnant After Five-Day Excursion
The original article has now been linked by the New York Post, the London Daily Mail, the New York Daily News, Australia’s Courier Mail, Newser, Cosmopolitan UK, and several others. None have performed any follow-up to confirm the original reporting.
And one newspaper has added details to the story that were never reported.
Even in the less media-dense environment of Bosnia, such a culturally incendiary story should have resulted in local politicians and ne’er-do-wells jumping in front of a camera, and copious b-roll of the school’s front entrance. None of this is present. The only source referenced at all in the story is “Serbia’s National Coordinator for Reproductive Health Nenad Babici” — Babici is described as claiming that this incident happened. But Babici is not quoted as saying it happened, he is paraphrased. The remainder of the article does include a direct quote from him, but the quote doesn’t refer to the incident. It instead pushes what is likely a top agenda of his ministry, which is that teenage sexual activity can have other health consequences, and that curbing teen sex is the responsibility of both the parent and the school:
National Coordinator for Reproductive Health of the Republika Srpska Nenad Babici said that children engage in sexual relations as early as at age of 13 or 14 and added that primary school students from a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina went to a five-day trip, and after some time it turned out that seven schoolgirls got pregnant on it.
He said that the reason for this was neglect of parents, but also educational institutions, toward the education of children.
Babic said that early engagement in sexual relations later leads to a series of consequences such as infertility, various diseases, miscarriages and premature births.
“In the Republika Srpska between 15 to 18 percent of people are struggling with infertility, we have 15 percent of miscarriages and between 5 to 10 percent premature births,” he said.
Only last year, according to the Clinical Center of the University in Sarajevo, 31 minors gave birth, four of them are 15 years old, ten are 16 years old and 17 are 17 years old.
Look at that last paragraph: if a city the size of Sarajevo only recorded 31 instances of teenage births last year, then Sarajevo doesn’t have a teen pregnancy problem, unless the rate of teen pregnancies that are aborted is stratospheric.
Meanwhile, this story claims the girls were visiting Sarajevo from “a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina” called Banja Luka. It is not at all clear as to what population that “31 minors” is drawn from.
Beyond the shortcomings of the article itself, how likely is the story’s claim?
Statistics on the percentages of unprotected sexual encounters that result in pregnancy are not wonderful for obvious reasons; this study referenced in this BBC article puts the figure at about 5 percent, except for the short window prior to ovulation during which the study estimates the odds at 25 percent.
So either the seven children were ovulating at the same time and had about four encounters each, or they each had closer to 20 encounters over the five days. Or all 28 students were active and about to ovulate. Either/or.
Every scenario presented by this article seems absurdly improbable, from the incident itself to the manner of the coverage. To a link-seeking media searching for a scoop, this is where we are expected to either get to work debunking the article, or to stay clear. So how did our brethren respond?
As mentioned, the original article has been linked with confirmation of the original reporting by mainstream newspapers, magazines, and sites. Additionally — and perhaps representing the worst offense of the bunch — the Daily Mail added details to the story that were never reported.
Here is the Daily Mail’s headline and bullet points:
Parents’ anger after seven Bosnian schoolgirls aged 13 and 14 fall pregnant on class trip
The girls had been on a five-day trip to Bosnia’s capital city of Sarajevo
Furious parents demanding to know why there was a lack of supervision
They’d been visiting museums and historical sites but returned expecting
Number of sexually active girls between 13 and 15 has increased in area
The original article says absolutely nothing about the “parents anger,” or about “furious parents demanding to know why there was a lack of supervision”. The Mail appears to have dreamed that up out of whole cloth. Of course, later linkers flew with that detail regarding outraged parents, though it never appeared in the source material.
Jenn Gidman of Newser writes:
Parents Furious This Happened To Girls As Young as 13 on 5 Day Sarajevo Jaunt
Parents are blaming the teachers; at least one health official is blaming the parents … Parents are enraged and asking what kind of adult supervision was provided on the trip, the Daily Mail reports.
Gidman gives herself an out further down in her column, acknowledging the insufficient source material. My assumption is she intended to report the news not as reputable, but instead as something the Daily Mail published, therefore passing the buck:
InSerbia’s report doesn’t specify when the trip happened (it’s a little light on specifics in general), but it relays a stat from the Clinical Center of the University in Sarajevo, which reports 31 girls between ages 15 and 17 (older than the students in question) gave birth last year. (emphasis added)
If you need to include such a disclaimer, your intentions in posting the article are certainly in question, and most likely traffic-based. Yet how a writer could continue with source material having not been gobsmacked by the bizarre, no-context “31 girls” statistic is beyond me.
Also beyond me: how the following ludicrous passage from the source material was not only judged to be worthy of a link, but the product of a competent journalist:
The problem of adolescent in Bosnia and Herzegovina is becoming more prominent, but information on the increasing number of sexually active girls aged between 13 and 15 years of age is also shocking.
Thus, on a website where girls seek advice from experts, gynecologists, peers, one of them wrote: “I would have sex with my boyfriend, even though I’m only 14 … But I am afraid I’ll be judged.”
The page also contains information according to which boys engage in sexual relations at age of 11, writes “Dnevni Avaz”.
What? Wait. What?
An unnamed “website” for girls seeking “advice”? Sounds legit.
A named source with no credentials, not even whether or not this “Dnevni Avaz” is a writer or a commenter or malware bot posting on said unnamed “website,” discussing something unsourced and unrelated and uncheckable?
Is Dnevni talking about boys in Serbia? Everywhere? Is this a trend up or down? Can they confirm that “Dnevni” is an adult, or an 11-year-old boy himself? Or a typo?
Dnevni Avaz happens to be a Croatian language news site. I have been unable to find this nugget about young boys anywhere on the site, though finding such a passage without a link is obviously a near-impossible task.
Also, having likely spent significantly more time and effort than those who further propagate the source material, I have yet to confirm that “Nenad Babici” is who the article claims he is, or if he exists.
Sometimes a headline is too good to check — the utility of the narrative trumps integrity. Sometimes a story just gets published because you have a quota. And so goes the fall of our media, from Trayvon Martin to Ferguson to the University of Virginia to New York Magazine to “if you like your doctor.”
And the ensuing damages, as we have seen in most of those examples, are not simply to the media’s reputation.