Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Another Media Failure: Invisible Threat Edition

By Karen Ernst

Despite how feisty I can be, I really do have sympathy for journalists writing about immunization. The impulse to try to please everyone in order to avoid the firestorm must be very strong.

But some stories are clear-cut. Take the documentary Invisible Threat. This documentary was created by high school students as part of a school-sponsored extracurricular project, funded by a Rotary Club grant. When the project was announced two years ago, it was simply going to be about the immune system. But immediately anti-vaccine crusaders pounced, so the students decided--on their own--to take a deeper look into the issue, and the result was a remarkable 40-minute documentary about immunization and the controversies surrounding it.

The release of the film didn’t quell anti-vaccine protests of course. In fact, the protests got uglier with many anti-vaxxers claiming that the students hadn’t even produced the film, that it was instead some nefarious project funded and produced by Big Pharma.

Among those rallying against this high school film project was Becky Estepp, who claimed that she was contacted by CHSTV students two years before the project was conceived. Becky Estepp is the communications director at the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Society, which hosts the annual AutismOne conference, and through AutismOne and their friends at Focus Autism, she launched a PR attack against these high school students. I just want to highlight again--these anti-vaxxers launched an attack against children.

The outcry in traditional media has been deafening. Attacking high school students is deplorable and out of bounds.

But hang on. I should qualify the above sentence. The outcry hasn’t been universal. One station local to the students aired the controversy, and then interviewed Becky Estepp, allowing her to make defamatory accusations and innuendos. The journalist left them in the piece unchallenged. The unchallenged accusations included: the children are Pharma Shills; they were pawns of the adults who really made the movie. The news station, the NBC affiliate in San Diego, aired these accusations with absolutely no qualification, fact-checking, or opportunity for the students or their advisors to respond.

That this is a failure of journalism is obvious. But the failure goes beyond false balance. Airing falsehoods and accusations like this is intimidation. The repercussions will affect every child who wants to make a school-sponsored film and gain national attention for such a monumental task. I should not have to explain why a television station giving a platform to an adult seeking to intimidate high school students is wrong.

I wrote an email to the journalist responsible for the piece, Candice Nguyen, as well as her General Manager, Dick Kelley.


Dear Ms. Nguyen,

I am writing to express concern about a recent story you aired about Carlsbard High School documentary, Invisible Threat:

As you noted at the beginning of the story, the students involved in this project were harassed by anti-vaccine activists trying to intimidate them out of doing the project. Once the project was complete, the campaign against these students continued.

So I was shocked that, in your story, you gave air time to one of the activists who worked hard to spread unsubstantiated innuendo in order to discredit these students. Furthermore, you left her unsubstantiated claims unanswered, even though each point she made was demonstrably exaggerated or false. In fact, the anti-vaccine activist you put in the story is a contributing editor of one of the organizations that has campaigned against the students and this film.

I want to emphasize that these students were in high school when they completed this school project. As with all extracurricular activities, these students had adult advisors. When a football team wins the state championship, no one asks why the coaches were there, too, and whether or not the championship was actually won by the adults. If people did raise those questions, no journalist would ever allow those detractors air time without proof of such allegations--especially allegations made against children.

I write a lot of reporters, and I understand the difficulties in reporting about immunization and in wanting to appeal to a very broad audience. However, your piece was the most egregious piece of journalism I have yet encountered because it gave airtime to someone who sought to poison the well against a group of children and had no proof of her allegations.

The only acceptable recourse is to air a full retraction of your segment. Please let me know when you plan on airing such a segment, and I will publicize far and wide your commitment to telling the truth and to protecting children against adult harassment and intimidation.

Karen Ernst
Voices for Vaccines

I sent this X number of days ago. I have yet to get a response.  I will update if I hear anything from the station. It might take many more voices writing in to them for them to understand that such bad reporting is a big deal. Here is the link to the piece, which is still available on the NBC San Diego website. The email addresses are above should you be moved to e-mail your thoughts on the piece.