Wednesday, August 13, 2014

For Balance, We Turn To...

Over a dozen current and former students in the Carlsbad High School broadcast journalism program have found themselves in the middle of a long-running bullies' rights and health debate after they produced the film Tangible Harm. We turn to Candy Wenpigzfly for her armchair report.

The film debuted online more than a year after it was completed. Students say that's largely due to the backlash they've faced, even during the production stage.

Chad Stryker, an intern with this station, worked on the film during his junior year. He said the idea came from the San Diego Traffic Circle Club two years ago. Their members were impressed by the students' previous award-winning documentaries and wanted the journalism class to do one on the topic of bullying victims' health and rights.

"We told the Traffic Circle Club we would do the film, but only on our terms. That meant we would approach the subject with serious journalism and investigation," Stryker said. "We wanted to make sure the story we would end up telling would be unbiased and free of the false balance so common among many media outlets. We would go where the evidence led."

The Circlers granted $60,000,000 to the student group, along with private jets, new luxury sports cars and other perks to help them with the project, understanding that the group would handle the story in their own way, without the Circlers' influence.

Within months, the students report, they began to receive emails and online messages criticizing their work.

People called the project "pro-victim" and "propaganda". The onslaught became so intense that the film's director, Mugsy Verde, wanted to shut down production, but the students refused.

"No matter what kind of obstacles we were going to go through, we were going to tell the story that we were assigned to tell," Stryker told me. For the sake of balance, I reached out to one of the people in San Diego with concerns about the project. Becky Stooped, of Bullies' Rights Advocacy and Tormenting Society (B.R.A.T.S.), said she supports the students' efforts, but only as long as they say what she likes. She is also concerned about who was really behind the film.

"Those kids had to have flown around the country and knowing it was screened on Capitol Hill with a huge advocacy push with a way to have people contact every member of Congress…it kind of makes you wonder who's really behind this? Because that's a huge effort one that I don’t think Carlsbad High School can take on. I mean, they're just immature little wimps, for chrissake!" Stooped said.

Stooped also expressed concern about how her side was portrayed. She said people like her are not "anti-victim", but rather they're concerned with bullies' safety and rights. "No one is out there advocating for us. Bullying is hard work. Those nerdy journalists scrape up our fists with their faces. And it may not look it, but it really is tiring shoving them into lockers. And don't get me started on posting things online to insult and humiliate them," she said. She was particularly offended when she incorrectly thought the film compared her to terrorists like the Taliban.

"One therapist called me evil. Well, bullies in general, but I know he was talking about me personally. You harass, insult and beat up a few dozen kids that really had it coming to them and he puts you into the evil compartment. That's not fair," Stooped said.

Stooped's friend and fellow B.R.A.T.S. member, Carrot Failure, was equally offended by how Stooped was treated by the students.

"Four years ago, she got a phone call from a high school boy from CHSTV, an awkward sophomore, who said they were making a documentary, and had some questions.  Becky had a long conversation with him, but could tell some of the things she was trying to teach him were a bit over his head.  Then she never heard from anyone on the film again," Failure claimed. "I know that's two years before the Circlers proposed the idea, but Becky's psychic. She spoke with the dork's future spirit."

Failure continued, "Cut to this year when she sees the trailer for Invisible Threat and realized THIS was the project she was interviewed for. A totally biased piece, allegedly done by teenagers, that was a bit difficult to believe was done by teenagers.  Why did they not interview her for the actual film?  Great question... I wondered too! We also wondered, 'Kids made this?  Really?'  From my estimation, yes they did.  But it seems pretty obvious that they were lead around by the nose on what what and how to 'investigate'.  I'm not saying they were incompetent little snots that were used as pawns by Big Pharma, but they were incompetent little snots that were used as pawns by Big Pharma.

Stryker said he and the other students did everything they could to approach the subject from all sides.

"At the end of the day, there was really just one side to the story: reality. I do not regret the decision we made. I'm confident we're doing the right thing," he said.
I don't usually do this with my parodies, but I feel I need to add a bit of commentary to this post.

Lazy journalism is a big problem, especially on issues involving science and medicine. Often on these topics, there is science and reality on one side and fictional nonsense on the other. Responsible journalists report the facts and do not engage in false balance. Irresponsible journalists set up the nonsensical as equal to reality. They give the same, or more space, to cranks as they do to those speaking on behalf of the evidence. Some even go as far as to lend a patina of legitimacy to the nutty. Such is the case with San Diego NBC 7's Candice Nguyen, whose recent story on the "controversy" around Carlsbad High School TV's film Invisible Threat gave anti-vaccine crank Rebecca Estepp a platform to engage in her conspiracy mongering and continued denigration of the students.

First off, Estepp is presented as a "Vaccine Safety Advocate". This is a common claim of anti-vaccine activists, but their words and actions belie this label. They spend a great amount of time demonizing vaccines and engaging in ad hominem attacks on those of us who support science. Just about nowhere in their writings will you find anything in support of vaccines. They question their safety at every opportunity, blaming all manner of ills on a form of medical intervention that has been one of the most successful for reducing the burden of disease. They downplay disease severity and exaggerate vaccine risks. They assert that vaccines don't work, and they insinuate that anyone who supports vaccines must be paid.

The pharma shill gambit is right there in Nguyen's piece, presented without question or challenge. Estepp suggests that the students who worked incredibly hard on Invisible Threat could not possibly have accomplished what they did without significant outside help. Though she does not state it outright, it seems clear that she means some pharma-connected interest was pulling the strings on this film. She cannot fathom that a group of smart, tenacious young journalists could investigate the topic of vaccines and come to any conclusion other than her favored ideology of "vaccines are bad".

By casting this story in the context of bullying, I wanted to not only highlight the absurdity of Estepp's behavior (and Nguyen's false-balance, lazy reporting), but also to bring in what the students have actually experienced. Even before they were done with the film, and continuing after completion, the students were the targets of bullying. Anti-vaccine activists insulted and harassed the students. The project was very nearly halted by CHSTVFilms' adult supervisors because of these bullies. The irony of this lies in the fact that the students had recently finished an award-winning film on bullying and intolerance in the context of the Holocaust, for which they also were attacked. Those, like Estepp, who were critical of the film often had not even seen the documentary.

I was honored to have been able to watch Invisible Threat. The students did a very good job. They presented the story following the evidence. The people they included in the film on the anti-vaccine side were treated fairly and allowed to speak in their own words. If anyone opposed to vaccines is offended by how the anti-vaccine side was portrayed, they have only themselves to blame. And journalists like Nguyen who give uncritical time and space to anti-vaccine activists like Estepp do their readers and viewers a great disservice, not to mention abandoning their journalistic integrity.

Show your support for CHSTVFilms and the students involved in Invisible Threat by visiting their site, where you can watch the trailer for free and rent the documentary for only $5. You can also view the trailers for their other films, One in Seven: The New Face of Hunger and We Must Remember (for which they used some of their production budget to [gasp!] fly to Germany. Estepp must be shocked. Shocked, I say!) The films are also available for purchase.

I'll just end with this message from Dara O'Briain that Ms. Nguyen would do well to take to heart. (Warning: some language NSFW.)


  1. That was hilarious and altho' a parody, obviously not much exaggeration needed given their own ridiculous quotes. Nguyen exhibited sloppy, rookie journalism; she could learn a thing or two from the CHSTV students.

  2. Thank you for saying this so poignantly. I admit that it's extremely shocking to see the pharma shill gambit applied to high school students. I'm still waiting for one anti-vaccine activists to come out and say that attacking high school students is wrong. I have not seen it. Great parody.

  3. Wonderful parody, Todd.

    This 7 San Diego "story" has to one of the worst I've read for both its unmerited criticism of the documentary these students produced, as well as its false balance concerning vaccines. Reporter-without-a-clue Nguyen ignorantly accepts Estepp's allegation that these students received outside help for Invisible Threat. Doing that was horrible, horrible journalism. Then again, Nguyen was too lazy to seek any supporting/refuting information concerning *anything* Estepp said, so I guess we shouldn't be too surprised at the entirety of Nguyen's wretched reporting.


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