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Sex & Modern Slavery: How the media plays a vital role in fighting human trafficking in policy and public

The media's role in investigating, interrupting and exposing traffickers to authorities is paramount in fighting human trafficking
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Sex & Modern Slavery is a campaign focused on the issues of human trafficking within the sex industry in the US. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories on the aspects of the illicit business and the role of society in mitigating the issue

Human trafficking is a pervasive problem across the globe. Unfortunately, it is a growing illicit business that continues to generate profits. According to the United Nations, it is the third-largest source of profits for organized crime, following the sale of drugs and guns, and remains a particularly attractive enterprise because it is low in risk and high in payoffs, according to research.

A big part of tackling the trafficking epidemic is visibility and this is where the media comes to play an important role. Unfortunately, most organizations tend to "sensationalize" stories, often not getting the impact of trafficking across and triggering survivors who are trying to move on from their trauma. Human trafficking involves deception, coercion, movement and exploitation of people across national borders. The majority of people trafficked for sexual exploitation are women, and although boys and young men also may be trafficked to work in prostitution, they are more likely to work at hard labor or in the military.

Fighting transitional organized crime — which is being increasingly facilitated by technology — it becomes important to raise awareness. The media's role in investigating, interrupting and exposing traffickers to authorities is paramount here. Rather than just reporting on the facts, figures and quotes, the media needs to offer insight and analysis. As such when the media talks about human trafficking, most reduce it to just sex trafficking, whereas human trafficking is also done for labor exploitation and organ harvesting.

To effectively report on trafficking stories, the media should collaborate with a host of stakeholders including government lawmakers, law enforcement, and more. The media holds great power to influence the general discussion and can have a major impact on policy outcomes, and therefore the victims of the problem. The first aspect that the media needs to be aware of is the type of language that is used.

Freedom Network USA, an organization fighting human trafficking told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that "language that perpetuates the 'rescue' narrative or mentality" is "highly discouraged", as they strip survivors of their agency. They suggest that visuals such as chains, bound women, or young children paint an inaccurate picture of human trafficking and can lead to distorted public perception. Instead, the organization suggests to " focus on imagery that highlights sectors where trafficking is most prevalent, features an under-identified population, or portrays survivors in empowering ways." 

Love146, a not-for-profit organization that works toward the abolition of child trafficking and exploitation told MEAWW, "Similar to any community member, media ought to familiarize themselves with the signs of human trafficking and report suspected trafficking to the National Trafficking Hotline. Additionally, [the] media can support survivors by portraying honest rather than sensationalized stories and graphics. Media can prevent trafficking by using their platforms to dispel common myths surrounding human trafficking."

Similarly, the Youth Collaborative notes that language used to describe trafficking is often victim-blaming and cautions against using the word "prostitute" or its derivatives when referring to victims of trafficking. Crucially, the protection of victims is at the heart of all anti-trafficking measures. Journalists, photographers and media outlets must protect potential and actual victims (and third persons) by altering the image, personal story and identity. Finally, the media also needs to focus on the hopeful side of such stories by including stories of survivors that clarify their experiences.

If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233-733.