The FBI made headlines this summer for a sex-trafficking sting carried out in 70 cities and resulting in the recovery of 100 teenage victims and 159 pimps – the Bureau’s largest sting to date. Although it was reported by a range of media in cities around the country, the story took a form that’s become increasingly familiar. Trafficking, a complex issue, was reduced to breaking crime news; stories provided few details about the circumstances in which the victims were recruited, then “rescued”; they provided little to no context linking trafficking to larger societal issues; and they relied overwhelmingly on official sources to the exclusion of those most closely involved with and profoundly affected by the issue.
Sex trafficking, one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, affects the world’s most vulnerable populations and, increasingly, it affects all communities, whether urban, suburban, or rural. It overlaps the issues with which journalism historically has been concerned: poverty, public health, human rights. And yet as policy and legislative decisions moved the issue of sex trafficking into the public sphere, news media have found this complex global issue difficult to cover, particularly given the shrinking resources in many newsrooms. Indeed, research suggests that more than half of the news stories published on sex trafficking in newspapers and magazines over the last 10 years sensationalized or trivialized the issue, or simply got it wrong. The result of such coverage can have dire consequences, leading to fear and misunderstanding, marginalization of trafficking victims, and the allocation of resources in ways that do not help the problem.
Our own analysis of newspaper and broadcast coverage of the issue over the last 5 years found several troubling patterns. Among them:
• Over 2/3 of the stories covered sex trafficking as breaking news tied to an event such as an arrest, a bill passing, or a court hearing, leaving other facets unreported.
• The sources quoted in sex trafficking stories were drawn from a shallow pool: law enforcement officers, officers of the courts, or politicians.
• News coverage of trafficking that had an international focus tended to fixate on immigration as a problem.
These findings, paired with the strong likelihood that journalists will encounter trafficking in their communities, suggest that they could benefit from specialized training to cover the issue.
What are some of the difficulties in covering trafficking?
A persistent challenge is the numbers. Statistical information on trafficking is often suspect given competing agendas, the limitations of data collection and the fact that sexual exploitation is historically an underreported crime. Journalists must keep up with an avalanche of data (sometimes conflicting) generated by an increasing number of governmental and non-governmental sources, and they must find ways to mine the data in their communities to identify the stories and accurately report on this topic in a way that informs community-based conversations and policy decisions. To do this, they need knowledge of data sources, subject experts and contacts, as well as proficiency with the approaches and tools useful for identifying and analyzing trends and presenting clearly, without sensationalism, potentially complex data in trafficking stories.
Another problem lies with definitions. As one example, reporters we talk with often struggle with the differences between sex trafficking and prostitution – viewing the former as forced sexual exploitation and the latter as voluntary, or conflating the two. Most egregious is the use of the term “child prostitute.” This variation almost certainly owes to the wide range of views among sources. As a result, news coverage may confuse or mislead audiences by using the terms interchangeably or failing to explain the definition upon which the story is being reported. Journalists must familiarize themselves with the legal distinctions between prostitution and trafficking, and hold sources accountable for using the terms as they do.
That sex trafficking occurs is not news -- it is a crime with a long and appalling history – but it is a crime that is rapidly changing in form and scope. How news media cover this issue now can set the frame for how audiences come to understand the issue and how resources are directed toward its eradication.
Dr. Barbara Friedman and Dr. Anne Johnston are Co-directors of The Irina Project at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism & Mass Communication.