How the media misrepresents human trafficking

For the most part, people understand that what we see on TV isn’t true. Many may criticize false and dramatized portrayals of human trafficking, such as what is seen in movies like Taken or 365 Days, but viewers rarely take these as completely factual. While these portrayals can spread misconceptions and biases, they can often be refuted by more trustworthy sources. On the other hand, most do not share the same wariness with their news, documentaries, and other sources believed to be informative rather than entertaining. But these sources often have even more potential to spread misinformation, either unintentionally or on purpose.

Take, for example, some of the most prominent news sites. When looking at the New York Time’s page for human trafficking, its top five articles are centered around the Jeffrey Epstein crimes. With the next thirty or so articles, there is a clear pattern of focus around just two or three national cases with a few scattered pieces on other subjects. Some of the articles even have the same pictures or what appear to be the same scene shot at a different angle. While it is beneficial to dig deeply into complex cases of human trafficking, this singular focus runs the risk of distancing people from the problem. When only a select few national cases are repeatedly shown, it may create the perception that human trafficking is rare, and perhaps only occurs in the circles of the rich and wealthy with large-scale operations. However, in the fiscal year of 2019, the Department of Justice convicted 475 traffickers- a far cry from the one or two cases that gained national attention. Human trafficking also occurs in a variety of places, including hair salons, spas, restaurants, farms, factories, homes, and more. This lopsided coverage is not an uncommon issue with the news, where the most controversial cases get the most attention. For example, while most people don’t know about individual trafficking cases in various states, nearly everyone knew about the Jeffrey Epstein case, partially due to the enormous amount of articles written.

Another pattern in news is an overwhelming focus on sex trafficking, particularly with women and girls. The 2-3 cases that the New York Times has focused on for the last few months are Nyxim, Pornhub, and Jeffrey Epstein, all of which are related to sex trafficking. Similarly, with the Los Angeles Daily News section for human trafficking, thirteen articles out of the first twenty on the page were related to sexual exploitation. In comparison, three were about labor trafficking. The disproportionate focus on sex trafficking runs the risk of overshadowing other types of trafficking. It often creates the perception that the majority of human trafficking is sex trafficking. On the contrary, according to the International Labor Organization, 16 million people are victimized by labor trafficking compared to the 4.8 million that are sexually exploited. The lack of attention on the issue of labor trafficking can mean that victims receive less help and support as people perceive sex trafficking to be the greater issue. 

It isn’t just content but also language that can send inadvertent messages to the audience. Despite the shrinking popularity of the term, “child prostitute”, a number of news sites still use the term. For example, the Herald wrote an article in 2020 with the term, “Child Prostitute”. Similarly, the Idaho State Journal, News24, FilmDaily, ABC4 News, and The Seattle Times have all used it either in their titles or in the articles themselves. “Child Prostitute” is a harmful term, regardless of the intentions of the article. Children cannot legally consent to enter the sex trade. Calling these victims of sexual exploitation “child prostitutes” minimizes the coercive role that adults played and places blame on the children. Though the use of “child prostitute” is indicative of a greater issue, particularly in the legal system where in 2010 over 1000 children were charged with child prostitution, it is important to minimize use of the term in news articles. 

Though these are just a few examples, it is clear that the news has an oversized influence on the public perception of human trafficking. That in itself is not surprising considering that most people implicitly trust the news as a source of factual, reliable information. However, the choice of coverage, language, and focus can lead audiences to develop certain views on trafficking. In a way, these perceptions may be even more insidious and dangerous. While outright lies and clear biases can easily be detected and countered, more implied messages may slip through unnoticed. Thus, it is essential for news organizations to consider not just the content of specific articles but the overall trend in their human trafficking coverage.