After 18 months of work, the students (let me repeat, they are high school students) launched the documentary "Invisible Threat." (Watch the trailer.) The film has already been endorsed by a remarkable lineup of government agencies, medical schools, professional medical organizations and universities. The list includes:
– The American Academy of Pediatrics
– The Centers For Disease Control
– Mayo Clinic; Vaccine Research Group
– Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
– Johns Hopkins Medicine
– Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter
– University of California Berkley
– Stanford University
– Yale School of Public Health
– Autism Science Foundation
– The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases
– Universities including Boston University, NYU and USC.
The students took on the project because immunization rates in some California communities have dropped. In San Diego, the number of parents who are seeking immunization exemptions for their children is steadily climbing. The parents were seeking exemptions based on fears that immunizations are linked to autism.
But the students, after interviewing experts and activists, parents and doctors came to the conclusion that the controversy was largely a social issue, not a medical one. The medical evidence, they reported, is overwhelming that there is no link between autism and immunizations.
But vaccine opponents said the film was a propaganda movie. They said the students had little to do with the filming or interviewing. They claimed the producers mislead the people they interviewed about the premise of the film and the students relied on a Scientific Technical Advisor who was actually a vaccine developer who worked for a drug company.
The protestors opened fire on the students even before their documentary was produced. They accused the student advisors of being bought off by drug companies. Barry Segal, a philanthropist and the founder of the group Focus Autism, said last May in a news release "All of the deceptions involved in the making of this film are a good reminder of how the vaccine industry operates."
The film's "national premier" in January was hosted by The Immunization Project, whose activities include pro-vaccination lobbying efforts. The film is sponsored by a local Rotary grant; Rotary International receives large grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major investor in vaccines. The film is being promoted for student viewing and is approved by Common Core.
Carlsbad High's student media advisor, Doug Green, said he was all for dropping the documentary idea and sparing the students from the controversy. But the students wouldn't hear of it.
"The students were most upset that all of the protests came from people who had not seen the film. The actual film had not even been released yet." Green told me. "I think what the students found most disturbing in the controversy that developed after the trailer was released was that the criticism being leveled at them came from people who could hide in the anonymity of online blogs and websites, and that they were surmising that the film was a propaganda tool created by the medical profession and/or the pharmaceutical industry. The reality is that the local Rotary Club asked us to produce a science film about the immune system. And that's what we did. 'Invisible Threat' is, at its core, a film about the immune system and how disease spreads. It also disturbed them that the comments were made based upon a 3-minute trailer."
Green said the Rotary club and The Price Family Foundation of San Diego put up a combined $60,000 to produce the documentary. Neither saw the work until it was completed and neither, he said, had any influence on the content.
The protestors, Green said, were wrong.
"This film was made, shot, edited, written by 15 high school students, myself and a parent volunteer," Green said. "100 percent of the journalism was the kids. It was a collaborative effort, you don't say 'go make the movie.' It was a hands-on process."
Green said he went out on interviews to shoot with a backup camera.
"I am focusing on audio. We would go out with three kids, three cameras three angles. I am sort of the safety net, and my main focus is to be sure we are capturing good quality audio while they worried about camera angles."
Green's high school TV production students are accustomed to causing a stir. This was the third controversial film his students have produced including one on the Holocaust. Green says the Holocaust film "launched a few careers for those student filmmakers." Two went on to win awards for documentary films at Chapman University and now work in the film business, one student is a news anchor in Tucson, Arizona.
The second Carlsbad High film was was about hunger, focusing on families of members of the military who were struggling with keeping food on the table. Green says one of the keys to his program having been recognized as one of the top high school video production schools in America year after year is that his school administration supports the program and never backs away from the heat that controversial topics might generate, as long as the programs have education value for the students.
Green has developed a program that allows students who stick with him to graduate high school with six years of video production skills.
"At the high school I teach two broadcast journalism classes with 36 kids or so in each of the two classes. Every student in the program works as a reporter and every student anchors the live shows on a rotating basis," Green explained. "They pick popsicle sticks each morning to select their job for that day's broadcast and they must learn every element of the broadcast; behind and in front of the camera. It is a hard class to get into and 99% of the successful applicants arrive as freshmen with at least two years of middle school broadcasting experience. Students in the high school broadcast journalism program receive college credit for the class through an articulation agreement with a local college."
At 10 a.m. each day, Green leaves the high school for his middle school assignment where he teaches a 7th grade and an 8th grade broadcast journalism class with another 72 middle schoolers.
And the assignments are more like what you would expect a university TV station to produce. When wildfires approached the community, the Carlsbad High School students covered them. In one story they reported on a classmate who lost everything in the fires.
"I think, for us, we do this on a daily basis, we are a daily live show. The kids are already producing stories that are already fairly serious content," Green said. "They are frustrated that they have to tell the story in a minute-thirty seconds."
It is a complaint you would hear in any newsroom. So Green opened the opportunity for the students to dive deeper on one topic a year.
"This was a chance for telling a longer story. This speaks well for this generation that they are able to take on topics that are serious."
For anyone who wonders if young journalists are interested in serious topics, consider that students who work on the film projects do this as an extracurricular activity outside of school hours.
"They must apply to work on the film projects and the application process for this film involved a summer of research and writing as the kids learned about the immune system and read multiple scientific studies in medical journals," Green said.
Some students conduct interviews, some shoot the DSLR cameras, one student was responsible for the 3-D molecular animations that he produced on Adobe After-Effects.
As another school year begins, I asked Green what he thought his students would take on next. There was a short pause, he joked that he would like to consider something easier and less controversial, "I don't know maybe a documentary on worm farming or something," he joked.
Then he began telling me about some grants he wanted to apply for, the kind of money that would fund big ideas. Listen to this high school teacher for a while and it becomes clearer where his students learned not to fold under pressure, to keep working to tell a story that the public needed to hear.