behind the news

Covering sex trafficking: Journalists can do better

Scholars want to nuance how journalists cover sex trafficking, the most common form of modern-day slavery but an issue that the media still grapples with.
August 12, 2014

When journalist David McSwane pitched a story about sex trafficking in minors to his editors at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2012, they were skeptical. As one of his colleagues put it: “People don’t want to read about sex with children when they’re eating their food.”

To McSwane, that comment later resonated with a more general attitude toward the issue. “It was almost a microcosm of what’s happening as a society. We don’t want to look at it because it’s uncomfortable,” he said.

But McSwane started doing some research and found that the media’s coverage of sex trafficking was simplistic and full of misunderstandings. The stories were usually spun around the same clichés about young girls who got into drugs and trouble, he said: “I thought to myself, nothing is that simple. That narrative is incongruous to what is actually happening in the individual lives of these girls or boys.”

It isn’t simple, and McSwane’s experience is symptomatic of a media industry that is falling short when it comes to covering sex trafficking. The subject is a central focus of two scholars from the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Anne M. Johnston and Barbara Friedman, whose research make up The Irina Project that monitors media coverage and advocates good reporting on sex trafficking.  

Although sex trafficking is the most common form of slavery today, and the world’s fastest-growing criminal enterprise, according to the FBI, the media’s coverage is not proportional to the complexity and gravity of the problem, the research shows.

“Our concern is that the way journalists cover the issue will affect how people think about it and the way we attempt to eradicate it,” Friedman said.

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To help journalists who want to bring more nuance to their reporting, Johnston and Friedman are expanding the Irina Project to include a website – an online resource bank that can connect journalists with survivors and advocates. Other initiatives have included last year’s workshop for journalists on covering sex trafficking.

In their research, the two scholars monitored print, broadcast and online media from 2008 to 2012 and found that over 54 percent of the coverage was crime stories – often with a bit of a sensational twist.

“If most coverage is crime, people think it requires law and order solutions, such as increased police and punishment,” Friedman said. A simplified explanation of a very complex issue that neglects other solutions to the problem – these could include more shelters or a decreased workload for social workers, she added. In contrast, the researchers determined that only 16% of the coverage treated sex trafficking as a human rights issue.

Further, 45 percent of stories didn’t attempt to explain the problem’s deeper, underlying causes, and 41 percent mentioned no remedies as possible solutions. Journalists often find stories through legal channels and as a result, quoted sources are mostly officials, while Johnston would like to see more survivor perspectives included in stories.

But, taking that advice is not a straightforward solution to journalists: “It’s a tremendous challenge because there aren’t a lot of survivors who are willing to be interviewed,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. The organization tries hard to match journalists with sources but not only can survivors be reluctant, the advocacy group is also cautious of re-traumatizing survivors through interviews, she said.

Meghan Sobel, a doctoral fellow, who has contributed to The Irina Project, has worked for anti-trafficking organizations in the past, and noticed a disconnect between journalists and advocacy groups, who often don’t understand the limits of journalism, she said.

Time constraints and word limits can look like a lack of research or attempts to sensationalize, so some organizations turn down opportunities to tell an important story. That’s why it will be an essential part of the Irina Project to connect journalists with the right sources, she said.

Even if those connections do start to get made, it’s a beginning to solving other issues as well.  One is a lack of research and data available to journalists, material that is often critical to shaping a story. But Johnston and Friedman say part of the solution to that lies with reporters. “We would like to see reporters think about how they can generate their own numbers. I think they can be more creative, rather than just looking for a total number of women trafficked, think of other ways to show numbers. How many times did this girl have to visit hospital, how many days of school did she miss?” Friedman said.

Definitions are another fraught area. The research shows that terms such as “prostitute” and “hooker” were used more frequently than “victim” or “survivor,” while the word “child prostitute” especially implied that journalists don’t always describe trafficking as a form of exploitation – a child cannot consent and is never a prostitute. And it is only occasionally that journalists ask about who is creating the demand for child sex trafficking — the buyers of such sex.

David McSwane did end up publishing his story about sex trafficking. He spent months creating his multimedia project, The Stolen Ones, that tells the story of Moe, a local Sarasota teenage girl and trafficking survivor, who fights to build a normal life for herself. The best advice to journalists who want to cover the beat, McSwane said, is to maintain a good relationship with advocates and social workers, which is especially helpful when on a tight deadline: “They do a lot of the work for you if they know you.”

To avoid sensationalizing, he advised: “Really think about, what does the story require? Do you really want to write about the grisly things that happened to a child or can you write about the effects on their life and how they’re living now.”

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.