When it comes to media depictions of sensitive topics, every detail counts. This is especially true of news media, which shape popular views and attitudes on societal issues.
Human trafficking is one such issue that, for many, has been defined by the media. And while spreading awareness is crucial in combating trafficking, media sensationalism and inaccurate framing often lead to the spreading of harmful misinformation.
Francesca Carpentier is the Academic Dean and James H. Shumaker Term Professor at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism. She said the way media present or frame topics molds popular perceptions, especially when media consumers have no personal experience with those topics.
Carpentier said initial coverage of human trafficking began with a narrow focus, and discussion of prostitution has been a separate dialogue, despite the overlap between the two.
She said there has been recent convergence of the issues as a result of hard work by advocates. But it still isn’t talked about enough, she said. She guessed that most probably don’t understand the prevalence of trafficking everywhere, its intricate relationship with prostitution, and the diversity of its victims and perpetrators.
She added that Hollywood perpetuates stereotypes about sex trafficking victims, particularly in movies like “Taken.” Because the content is entertaining, she said, consumers don’t view it critically or separate fact from fiction.
“It’s romanticized in a bad way,” Carpentier said. “But whatever happens to be most compelling, that’s what we’re going to remember better. And whatever we remember the best, that tends to be what drives our perceptions.”
This propagation of popular misconceptions is detrimental because policymakers buy into them too.
One study, “Human Trafficking and the Media in the United States,” delves into the impact of media framing on trafficking policy. It was written by Rachel Austin, a graduate research assistant at the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, and her boss, Professor Amy Farrell.
According to Austin and Farrell, human trafficking depictions are frequently oversimplified and inaccurate. Survivors are portrayed as “ideal victims,” or chaste, white and female. Further, entertainment media typically follows “a rescue narrative where innocent victims are saved from harmful predators.”
The reality of trafficking often contrasts with this, as survivors’ experiences exist on a spectrum, varying greatly case by case. Austin and Farrell said the incorrect media framing is problematic because it “may lead policymakers and legislators to adopt less helpful anti-trafficking responses, particularly responses focused on criminal justice system solutions.”
And the framing doesn’t just influence policymakers. Survivors of human trafficking are susceptible as well.
Stefani Baca-Atlas, a doctoral student at the UNC School of Social Work and graduate research assistant at Project NO REST, said some victims don’t even recognize that they have been trafficked. While this might have to do with their traffickers having conditioned them, she said, it can also be attributed to the picture painted by the media, which might not align with their experiences.
As a result, victims may stay in the trafficking situation longer.
Baca-Atlas explained that this is a result of the “most heinous cases” being the most publicized, since they attract readers. She said while these horrific cases do occur, they may not be as common as one would expect based on coverage.
“We’re neglecting a lot of the in-between that people experience, so when some people experience it on the ground, then they’re not able to identify it as such,” she said. “They’re not necessarily even understanding that this is trafficking, what they’re experiencing is trafficking.”
Education, open discourse and better, more proportionate reporting are necessary to tackle this problem. It is critical that reporters remain conscious of how they are covering human trafficking, Baca-Atlas said.
Barbara Friedman, Ph.D, is an associate professor and co-director of The Irina Project, which “monitors and analyzes media representations of sex trafficking” and “advocates for the responsible and accurate reporting of the issue.”
She mentioned that even reporters who are conscious face challenges related to “reliable estimates of the rate of trafficking, what things create the conditions that allow trafficking to occur and incorporating diverse viewpoints.”
But she said coverage of human trafficking has improved significantly, especially from those with the time, resources and skillsets to cover it properly and represent its complexity.
“More routine coverage of trafficking is typically reports of arrests, court appearances and raids,” she said. “That doesn’t help the public understand the root causes of trafficking or how to eradicate it. Specialized training and resources, and collaboration with organizations and individuals that work with survivors would be a way to strengthen coverage.”
Austin and Farrell also provided ways to improve coverage and “reconstruct the framing of human trafficking” by presenting it as the multifaceted issue it is.
“It is necessary to utilize popular media to depict the complexities of human trafficking problems, with different victims,” they wrote. “A wider array of storylines fosters discussion of solutions that extend beyond the criminal justice system.”