Article  |  Victims

News Reporting on Human Trafficking: Exploratory Qualitative Interviews with Illinois News Journalists

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THIS IS THE FINAL PUBLISHED ARTICLE (VERSION OF RECORD) BY TAYLOR & FRANCIS IN THE JOURNAL OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING, AVAILABLE ON TAYLOR & FRANCIS ONLINE: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23322705.2018.1423443. THE ARTICLE HAS BEEN REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION.

Introduction

Human trafficking—the exploitation of individuals for labor or commercial sex—has been the subject of increased media focus in recent years. Gulati’s (2011) review of human trafficking articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post noted an increase from 56 articles in 2000 to 185 in 2006.[1] More recently, Sanford, Martinez, & Weitzer (2016) found a similar increase in magnitude from 189 articles in 2012 to 275 in 2013 in the same newspapers.[2] Given that the news media are powerful tools in shaping public understanding and opinion on societal issues, as well as influencing policies, programs, and legislative action,[3] research is needed to explore how human trafficking is covered in the media. News media utilize framing to highlight certain perspectives or aspects of a given issue, shaping the way in which individuals understand a problem and its causes. News media use framing whenever decisions are made about which topics to prioritize, the structure of an article, sources to reference, and how to contextualize an issue.[4] Little is known about how these decisions are made, particularly how both individual and organizational factors shape and inform the final product present to the public. Much research on the media has relied on quantitative content analyses of news articles.[5] Quantitative content analysis is useful for evaluating large volumes of media content; however, such analyses make inferences that need support from qualitative data, such as interviews, to further validate those inferences.[6] Insights gained from qualitative interviews with news reporters who have covered human trafficking may lead to a dialogue that can shift how crime reporters, anti-trafficking advocates, and criminal justice personnel collaborate on and view the issue. This dialogue may foster more accurate reporting and misleading and sensationalized reporting.[7] This study is the first to interview news reporters specifically on human trafficking to understand their knowledge of the topic, the writing and assignment process for the articles, and the types of sources that reporters use to inform their work.

Literature review

On the topic of human trafficking, news media may offer misleading, sensationalized, or missing information; episodic framing through a criminal lens; and/or reinforcements of criminal justice narratives. The United Nations’ Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking noted, “sensationalism, stereotypes and assumptions on the profile of victims and circumstances of their exploitation unfortunately often prevail over in-depth investigative journalism.” [8] This is due in part to the constraints that journalists innately have in their day-to-day job of making news, as well as organizational influences of newspapers.

The news process

The nature of the news process can have a direct impact on how human trafficking is reported in the news. Media gatekeeping theory posits that “the vast array of potential news messages are winnowed, shaped, and prodded into those few that are actually transmitted by the news media.” [9] News content is both an individual product and an organizational product, but the gatekeeping of newspaper content is influenced more by media organization and routines than individual reporter views and interests.[10] News media require content to be “controlled, anticipated, and packaged” to manage its work.[11] or through what Tuchman refers to as “routinizing the unexpected.” [12] Reporters are asked by their organizations to condense news, perhaps driven by economic profit, to what is deemed important, interesting, controversial, unusual, and timely as dictated by the limited attention and interest of the audience.[13] Due to the recent phenomenon of shrinking newsrooms with fewer staff reporters to do the work of making news, there is less time and emphasis on analyzing complex problems, investigating government claims, and avoiding stories where facts cannot be verified.[14] For complex social issues that are often misunderstood, such as human trafficking, this may be particularly problematic.

Misleading and inaccurate information

Knowledge and terminology of human trafficking

Knowledge about the definition and prevalence of human trafficking varies. In 2000, the U.S. federal government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) offering a distinct, universal definition of human trafficking including both sex and labor trafficking for use by all disciplines:

  • The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion. Or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age;
  • the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Despite the TVPA definition, human trafficking has been defined in a variety of subtly different ways by government and non-government agencies in the United States.[15] Ultimately, language does matter and many terms for human trafficking confuse, mislead, stigmatize, or normalize human trafficking.[16] Thompson recommends the use of terms that highlight the violent, exploitative nature of human trafficking and recognize it as an organized industry in which offenders profit from exploitation of their victims.[17] The author cautions against terms, such as sex work, prostitute, or client, that marginalize, stigmatize, or blame victims, and supports the use of language that acknowledges the role of the trafficker and buyer, including prostituted persons, commercial sexual exploitation, and perpetrator. However, these terms only refer to sex trafficking; there are no recommendation for terms for labor or human trafficking more broadly.

News reports tend to demonstrate a lack of understanding of human trafficking and which factors contribute to victimization.[18] In failing to provide readers with a clear and accurate definition and scope of human trafficking, news media likely contribute to the documented gaps in public understanding of the issue, presenting challenges to the prevention of and intervention in cases of trafficking.[19] There is also a lack of reliable, accurate data on the prevalence of human trafficking,[20] which presents challenges to educating the public. Many news reporters utilize statistics to lend credence to their arguments,[21] often without noting the sources of their data.[22]

Portrayal of victims

Prior research on news media have highlighted a tendency toward particular portrayals of human-trafficking victims. News portrayals perpetuate stereotypes[23] of victims as young, white females who are vulnerable and defenseless or as exotic women who are kidnapped and brought to the United States.[24] Both the United Nations and anti-trafficking advocates have criticized media coverage for perpetuating these stereotypes,[25] as narratives portrayed by media are inadvertently seen as more deserving of public attention, which may affect policy and practice. [26]

Sensationalized information

News coverage on human trafficking tends to feature atypical, violent, or sensational cases.[27] In an effort to improve readership, newspapers may sensationalize human trafficking stories to maximize the emotional impact.[28] A focus on sensational cases may lead to an oversimplification of the issue, potentially leading readers to think trafficking is rare or unlikely to occur in their community.[29]

Missing information

The media omit information as well.[30] Content analyses of human trafficking media coverage have found major omissions of labor trafficking and victim diversity. Sex trafficking—as opposed to labor trafficking—receives the lion’s share of media focus.[31] While victims of labor trafficking likely outnumber victims of sex trafficking, news media have all but ignored labor trafficking.[32]

The reinforcement of criminal justice narratives

Also missing from human trafficking media coverage is diversity of opinion.[33] Coverage tends to “reflect the view of the dominant actors”—such as law enforcement and government agencies—and features “almost no questioning of positions and statements of official sources.” [34] Academics and anti-trafficking practitioners are rarely consulted, and reporters rely heavily on government sources that are episodic in nature (e.g., arrest information.[35] Audiences are rarely exposed to alternative perspectives or criticisms of current policy approaches. [36] This may contribute to a criminal justice lens on human trafficking coverage, though other lenses (e.g., public policy) are also appropriate.[37] News articles often suggest that trafficking is a product of organized criminal networks, and that appropriate remedies include increased resources for law enforcement, enhanced legal measures, and assistance for victims.[38] News media have the potential to offer a nuanced exploration of the complex relationship between trafficking and social factors such as race, gender, and economic status by exploring the deeper story that may raise awareness and strengthen the response to trafficking.[39]

The news media have a vital role as the primary purveyor of information, but they are influenced by organizational constraints and day-to-day routines. To date, however, the media have served to add confusion to an already misunderstood and underreported issue.[40] This, in turn, may affect public perceptions of and response to human trafficking, as well as support for the development of appropriate programs and policies.

Current study

This study addresses the limitations of past research that relied on quantitative content analysis by offering qualitative interviews with newspaper reporters. Research questions included:

  • How do newspaper reporters perceive their role in covering human trafficking?
  • What is newspaper reporters’ understanding of human trafficking?
  • What is the process of writing an article on human trafficking? What sources do reporters draw on? How have survivors’ voices been represented in newspapers?

Methodology

This research study was approved by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority’s Institutional Review Board. As employees of the state of Illinois, the authors concentrated their focus on news reporting in Illinois. Researchers used four methods to recruit study participants for interviews, including an online search to find potential newspaper reporters; posting an announcement on various listservs: Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Crime Reporters Association; and a snowball sample from participants and others in the field.

Recruitment of interview subjects

Researchers identified email addresses for 97 Illinois newspaper reporters writing on human trafficking through ProQuest database (12), Newsbank database (24), Google search engine (37), and referral (24). Researchers eliminated from the sample those who had not published articles on human trafficking between 2014 and 2017 (24), only had online news reports affiliated with a television station rather than a newspaper (4), or whose emails were not valid (3). Of the original 97 reporters, 66 were potential interviewees. A total of 53 reporters did not respond to repeated recruitment emails and one declined to be interviewed. Researchers conducted interviews with 12 reporters. Other studies interviewing journalists on their reporting of societal issues—including local political leaders, health information, and climate change—had similar sample sizes, interviewing 10–24 journalists.[41]

Study participants

The 12 study participants worked for 9 different newspapers—3 newspapers had 2 reporters each and the remaining papers had one each. A total of 11 reporters worked on both online and print features. Five worked at newspapers in urban areas, two in rural areas, four in combination urban/rural areas, and one in a suburban area. Participants reported a wide range of time spent working in the news media field, from 2 months to 40 years (mean = 19 years, mode = 20 years). The members of the sample wrote 1 to 30 newspaper articles on human trafficking, for a total of 117 articles (mean = 10.6, median = 6, mode = 1). A majority had most recently published an article on human trafficking in 2017 (n = 7), and the rest had last published a human trafficking article in 2016 (n = 4) or 2014 (n = 1). Of the sample of 12 reporters, 7 identified as female and 5 male; 10 identified as White, 1 as African American, and 1 “other.” Ages ranged from 21 to 61 years old (mean = 42.9).

Interviews and analysis

Individual interviews were conducted using a structured interview guide based on past studies analyzing content of U.S. newspaper articles on human trafficking.[42] The protocol asked about the reporter’s understanding of human trafficking (e.g., definition, causes, and impact) and about the reporter’s process in developing the article (e.g., how it was assigned, sources used, and whether the reporter interviewed victims). Throughout the interviews, researchers utilized clarifying questions to gain a deeper understanding of the reporter’s understanding and work process. Audio-recorded interviews lasted from 11 minutes to 1 hour and 4 minute (mean = 40 minutes, median = 46 minutes). Interviews were audio-recorded with the consent of the participant and then transcribed and analyzed using NVivo 9 qualitative software. Interviews were recorded using a digital audio recorder with consent and transcribed verbatim. Data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis. While content analysis has predominately been used as a quantitative approach focused on the numeric summarization of data (i.e., summative content analysis),[43] qualitative content analysis can be used to describe themes that emerge from a structured, systematic analysis of the data.[44] The authors used pseudonyms for individual reporter’s views and quotes.

Study results

The analysis of interviews focused on the reporters’ roles, their definitions of human trafficking, and the processes and sources used for their most recent human trafficking article. Each area of focus is described in greater detail below.

Role of reporters

When asked about their roles as reporters, all reporters agreed their role is to inform, and some also said it is to educate or raise awareness. As Michael, a reporter at a large urban paper, stated, their role is to “provide information to citizens to inform their participation in democracy.” James, a reporter at an urban newspaper, believed the “public needs to know the reality of trafficking, the human impact, human cost.” Two other participants thought news reporters could “change the conversation on human trafficking” and readers could share and discuss what they learned with others. Nicole, a reporter for a rural Illinois newspaper, described her role as providing entertaining or interesting content.

Several reporters posed that the role of journalists is “not just to inform, but to inspire,” with the potential to create a call to action. Readers could gain awareness to identify human trafficking in their communities and report it to law enforcement. James discussed readers noticing human trafficking in their community:

Somebody is being exploited, just out of the rim of our eyesight or just out of hearing range, someone is crying for help and journalism is there to connect that [person] to the reader, that’s why it exists.

However, a couple of the reporters did not feel their role was to prescribe reform, as James shared:

I’m really not in the business of advising or arguing for policy or government action or social change. My job as a journalist is to bring out injustice, suffering, wrongdoing that may otherwise be hidden and it’s not in my view to prescribe reforms or changes I think should happen.

Definition of human trafficking

Most of the 12 reporters appeared to articulate definitions of human trafficking in line with the federal legal definition; however, five did not. Six reporters used the term “force” and four used “coercion;” two mentioned using a “broad” definition, which included both sex and labor trafficking.

However, two reporters defined trafficking with a requirement of transportation from one country to another, which is not a requirement under TVPA. Ashley, from a newspaper serving urban and rural areas, noted:

I have some issues with the way it’s being identified these days. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to human trafficking. I feel that if you are brought into an area, most often from out of the country or from our country into another country—for the purposes of prostitution, sexual slavery, indentured servitude, working in someone’s house doing housekeeping type of services—that to me is true human trafficking.

Five reporters shared the opinion that international trafficking was somehow more serious or more extensive than domestic trafficking. Melissa from a rural newspaper stated victims of international trafficking were “treated a little worse off.”

Five reporters stated they came to their definition through their reporting and four through victim service providers. Two—Nicole from a rural paper and Elizabeth from a suburban paper—learned from media, including magazines; the television show Law and Order; and the movie, Taken. Only one mentioned using the TVPA definition.

Reporting process

Reporters discussed how the process they engaged in to research and write a story was shaped by their agency processes and culture, as well as their experience. They covered how the article originated, how this shaped the process that was used to write the article, as well as the sources used, highlighting how agency processes and priorities shaped the final published piece.

News article trigger

There were a variety of ways that articles were initiated. Some reporters discussed receiving press releases or hearing of breaking stories on human trafficking. Editors may assign these stories to their team or reporters may be in charge of covering the crimes in a particular region. Reporters on these news teams discussed how they often wrote multiple stories simultaneously, and their article on trafficking was one topic of many they might write about in a day. For instance, Bryan from a large urban paper reflected on a recent article:

I mean, the genesis of the story [on human trafficking] was probably a press release or other news outlet story, pricked up my ears or led an editor to assign it to me. That story may have been one of several I wrote that day when I was a general assignment reporter. It was not unusual for me to write three stories in a day, which does not lend itself to exhaustive research.

Other reporters discussed how an external request or connection prompted the article—including social service agencies assisting trafficking victims or personal contacts. In some cases, an editor or agency contacted the paper to cover an event or new program to address human trafficking. Reporters noted that these types of articles were often geared toward making the public aware of events or resources in the community.

Lastly, investigative reporters discussed how their articles originated from their own interest in human trafficking. These reporters often followed up on information they believed might lead to a valuable story that would inform the public. An investigative reporter described how his/her story began with an interest in human trafficking and the aim to “find out how widespread the problems were, how intense they were, and what the costs and human consequences.” Investigative reporters engaged in extensive research to formulate their story that often took months to complete, providing an expansive look at the identified focus in one article.

Editorial influence

Reporters discussed how their editors shaped their work process and their final product. For breaking news or deadline articles, reporters discussed editors’ parameters. Reporters had a predetermined topic and a set amount of time and page space in which to write their story. Editors made decisions about what news releases or external requests were relevant and important enough for follow-up. Some reporters felt decisions were informed by a personal connection the editor had to the content or the agency involved in the event.

Others noted articles that would generate higher readership were also given priority. Bryan, from an urban newspaper, noted how in their coverage of crime and human trafficking, the editor focused on stories perceived to be “exceptional,” and on crimes involving non-minority victims. In relation to human trafficking, Bryan described attempts to cover stories that highlighted the existence of human trafficking in the area, but felt perhaps they were not being approved because they did not meet the “exceptionalism” criteria. Bryan shared how they tried to pitch stories about human trafficking in the suburbs, but permission was not granted:

Not entirely sure why there’s not been a lot of interest, the editors seem to think it’d be amusing to write about victims in the suburbs, but for whatever reason it just never got a green light. You can write about heroin in the suburbs all day and I can only assume that [at] some level it’s because the victims aren’t suburbanites themselves.

In their efforts to cover human trafficking, some reporters found it challenging to get buy-in to cover the topic when it was not originally assigned by the editor or when the editor deemed the story uninteresting or irrelevant.

Additionally, when working on breaking news or deadline articles, reporters discussed how the quick turn-around expected from editors limited the time they had to gather information to inform the article. Stephanie, at a newspaper serving urban and rural areas, discussed how ultimately, the goal of these articles is not depth, but basic coverage of the assignment: “I mean for background, I visited the Web site, and I can quote the people [who attended], well, I don’t have that kind of time, these are not in-depth articles.” She added, “As a reporter, you have to go in, get the information and the names quickly and hope that everything is clear.”

Other reporters talked about how the limited space provided for these stories led reporters and editors to make strategic decisions about what information to include in the final product. Reporters were sometimes given direction about how much space they had: An “editor says give me 500 words on this or give 750 words on this.” Reporters discussed how certain material, such as definitions or context on human trafficking, does not get included in the article as a result, especially when the main focus is on a crime or an arrest. Michael, a veteran news reporter at an urban newspaper, said:

Things that are viewed as kind of ancillary issues to the news story, such as definitions of what human trafficking is, that kind of thing would have gotten cut for space if I put them in the story. I mean, you want to get as much detail about the actual crime and operation as you can so that, that doesn’t leave any room for that kind of stuff.

Some reporters noted they did not include information on what human trafficking is, its causes, or its impact in their deadline articles, anticipating it would be cut by their editors.

Reporters who had more experience shared how their relationship with their editor was more autonomous, both in content and process. Investigative reporters discussed their ideas with editors, but generally expressed control over the stories they chose to cover, as Michael stated:

I consult with my editors when I have things I want to do and they’ll either say they’re excited about it and go ahead with it or say, “I don’t know about that,” but almost always in the case of probably any reporter who’s been doing this for decades it’s kind of a reporter decision with editor guidance, and for younger reporters it’s a lot of times directed by the editors with little or no reporter input; it’s kind of the way it works.

More experience led to greater flexibility; however, these reporters also noted the expectations differed for investigative articles. Investigative content came with an expectation of greater detail and background, and necessitated a soft deadline and more space to accurately explore sources and information. Michael shared this on writing deadline stories:

When you’re on a deadline story, it was a story that happened that day, arrests happened that day and so the story had to be produced that day, and with the advent of the Internet, we published the stories the same day we write them [if] that particular story was deemed to have less newsworthiness than other stories, it would’ve been given significantly less space to write.

Michael contrasted deadline stories with investigative stories: “If my editors know [I am doing an investigative piece], I’m going to produce a story that may need a lot more space [and] they’re going to expect there [to be] extra things in the story as well.” With higher word counts and more time to research and formulate the articles, investigative reporting featured an expectation of more in-depth coverage of topic areas.

Language

Related to the work process and final product, reporters were asked about the words they used when writing about human trafficking. Reporters varied in word choice preferences, using victim or survivor, john or client, and pimp or trafficker—citing politics, legal language, and self-identification for the reasons they used particular terms. A few reporters mentioned that a pressure to reduce repetition led them to use sex trafficking and prostitution interchangeably. Bryan stated:

We’d probably interchange prostitute for victim; I’m not sure that I’ve given a lot of thought to it. Often, reporters are in a bit of a bind because we’re not supposed to repeat words over and over again, so [with the] the word victim, our sense of style might compel us to rather thoughtlessly throw in the phrase prostitute.

For instance, Elizabeth, used the term prostitution in the headline, but categorized the article as human trafficking, reasoning that the term prostitution would be better understood by the public:

[The criminal justice responders] described the operation as part of their efforts to fight human trafficking. But in laypeople’s terms, I think prostitution was probably the word people would understand more.

Alternatively, Nicole, at a rural newspaper, discussed how they did not use the word “prostitute” because of the term’s negative connotations.

I don’t use that word, because that has a lot of negative connotations, and I think from my work with people in the industry, people might say ‘sex workers.’ I think maybe I’ve been told to not use that. I might use the verb ‘prostituted,’ but not to label someone a prostitute, because that has such a negative connotation.

Findings also suggest that some reporters take greater care to use more sensitive language when the victim is a minor. In doing so, they avoid language that references prostitution, preferring to use the term victim. In one investigative reporter’s interview, the reporter recognized the need to be careful in her language about child sex trafficking victims, and not referring to the victim as a prostitute. While many reporters used prostitution to refer to victims of sex trafficking, some did avoid using language that labeled the victim; some reporters wrote about the behavior, “being prostituted,” rather than labeling the individual as a “prostitute.”

Informational sources

Researchers also asked reporters about the sources they relied on to inform their articles, with a particular interest in how victims were engaged to inform the content of the article or to incorporate victim voices. The sources reporters drew upon to inform articles varied.

Publicly available documents, such as press releases, other news stories, and legal documents were sources reporters used both as primary sources of information and as sources to validate other reports or information from interviews. Some reporters intentionally matched their language to reflect the language of legal court documents, viewing these sources as authoritative. In addition, such documents were more easily accessible to reporters. Reporters working under tight deadlines often used documents and information available on government or agency Web sites. At times, reporters reached out to professionals like victim service agency directors, medical personnel, or law enforcement officials to conduct interviews to inform stories. Reporters who did have the time and space to contact law enforcement directly for further comment on a press release were often unable to obtain additional information. Deadline reporters talked about the challenge of acquiring interviews, corroborating information within the timeline, and navigating limited page space as barriers to incorporating sources beyond what was publicly available.

Researchers specifically asked reporters about contact with victims in the writing of their article, eliciting a wide range of responses and reasons. One reason for not interviewing victims was a desire to not further harm or retraumatize victims. A few reporters expressed they were not sure if the victim would be willing to talk. Nicole shared how she had been instructed by a provider at a service agency to not interview victims: “She said [interviewing a victim] would be akin to victimizing them all over again, which I get her point.” Echoing this concern, Josh, from an urban newspaper, explained:

I don’t want to put that sort of added pressure on a victim, unless they want to come to me directly, because I know that they’re in a very fragile state. So unless someone comes forward, it’s not something that I usually seek out.

While some reporters make a deliberate decision to not seek out victims for their news story, others’ attempts to contact victims were unsuccessful. Other reporters, such as Bryan, described an environment in which “victims themselves are often heavily shielded by law enforcement, by advocacy groups who want to protect them from basically being further traumatized” or how prosecutors have directed the victim not to “talk with anybody in the media.” Also, reporters stated they cannot contact victims because victim names are protected in legal documents, which made it difficult for a reporter to contact victims for an interview.

For those who spoke to victims, reporters shared how victims’ experiences shaped their article in key ways that would have been otherwise missed. For instance, an interview with a victim helped to inform Sarah’s news story in such a significant way that the reporter returned to other sources to reinterview them in light of new information. Sarah, who is a reporter at a newspaper covering rural and urban areas, said:

I think if I had not talked to [the victim], then I think it would have been a very dull article. And I think there were a couple of things that [the victim] brought out that were so informative that I had to go back and reinterview a couple of [sources].

Others talked about how interviews with victims made their articles more engaging and interesting. David from an urban newspaper said:

Well, it was a good story. I guess because there’s a lot of human drama involved with it—she was a runaway and it’s kind of salacious, what happened to her. And it’s just kind of a lot of human emotion in the story, I found. And so it made a good story.

When interviewing victims, a few reporters discussed the importance of being sensitive in recruitment, the interview dynamic, and in the final product. Due to the sensitive content of the interview, some reporters relied on other relationships in order to contact a victim for an interview. Michael, an experienced investigative reporter for an urban paper, shared:

For many reasons, we won’t independently contact the victim and try to interview her or him. If we want to do a larger feature story and include a victim’s voice, we would usually go through an advocate or a prosecutor, or somebody who can approach that person and find out whether they want to talk or not. So that’s different than some other kinds of crime that I write about, where we’re less concerned about talking to a victim and compounding their trauma.

During the interview process, these same reporters took care to give power over the interview to the victim. Sarah described her experience talking with a victim over the phone where both the reporter and the victim had an agency staff member for support in the room with them:

There was a, not a long list of ground rules, but there was the understanding going in that she didn’t have to talk to me. There were a couple times where I asked a question that she did not want to answer, and that was fine. There were a couple of times where she gave a very long pause before answering, and that was fine.

Sarah allowed the victim to control the pace and content of the interview. Sarah also respected the victim’s request that certain statements be “off the record,” or not included in the story.

Another reporter, James, from a larger urban newspaper who was working on an investigative piece on human trafficking was also responsive to the need “to give these young people complete power to decide whether they wanted to share their accounts, [and] whether to do so on the record.” James described their process to ensure that victims understood how their story would be presented and shared:

We had to explain all the options to them. That meant we had to explain these things multiple times. Here’s what we’re going to publish, here’s what our videos look like, here’s what our story’s going to say—and make sure they understood the reality of what we were doing.

The same reporter also shared how incorporating victims’ voices, in a manner that gives complete control to victims, can be challenging. Specifically, victims may revoke their consent to have their stories told by reporters for various reasons. James described his experience of removing entire victim accounts from a drafted report at the victim’s request:

We had young people who were eager to participate and consented to interviews and then at the very eleventh hour, right before publication, expressed fear of retribution from a pimp, or a fear of being essentially stigmatized by taking part. And in those cases, we quickly, automatically, completely removed their accounts from our published report and thanked them for helping us, for teaching us, for giving us an education and that really did happen with some of the most powerful, important stories that we had.

The reporter further stated that in the reporter–interviewee relationship, the victims had “one hundred percent of the power.”

In summary, media depictions of human trafficking are impacted by stereotypes to which reporters may subscribe; informational sources; and work constraints including deadlines, readership (e.g., perceived interest), and reporter autonomy.

Discussion

It has been established in the literature that the media have a powerful influence, and some reporters from this study recognized and shared that perspective. According to Hamman (2011), editors and reporters have an obligation to be accurate and thorough in their reporting of human trafficking whenever possible.[45] From the data obtained in this study, reporters working on human trafficking stories made attempts to present the information available to them with accuracy. However, like the general public, reporters may subscribe to myths and stereotypes about human trafficking.[46] For instance, a couple of reporters stated that trafficking only occurred when the victim was transported from one country to another, a common myth.[47] Human trafficking affects U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, visa holders, and undocumented workers; transportation is not a required element of the trafficking definition. In addition, reporters used the terms “prostitution” and “human trafficking” interchangeably; however, prostitution often lacks elements of force or coercion.[48] Editors’ and reporters’ previously held assumptions about human trafficking may shape their framing of trafficking and perpetuate misconceptions.

Work constraints also impacted reporters’ coverage of human trafficking. Reporters described how pressing deadlines, interest in the article, and reporter autonomy shaped their process and the content of their article. For instance, due to limited time and space, or because it is seen as ancillary to a more interesting narrative or to the goal of the coverage (e.g., to inform the public of an arrest), background information—including definitions, prevalence, or impact—are often omitted, as was found in previous research.[49] The basic news story facts or the more interesting narratives take precedence, limiting readers’ understanding of human trafficking. Sensationalized stories that present a distorted or incomplete picture of human trafficking may be approved for publication if the editor anticipates such a story will draw interest. Anti-trafficking advocates have noted how the media seem to focus on captivating stories, organized crime, or the rescue of victims, without a clear understanding of human trafficking or victim risk and resiliency factors.[50] Lastly, reporters had varying levels of autonomy to determine the content of the stories they covered.

Furthermore, all reporters, regardless of experience level, viewed legal documents and information released through official channels, like press releases, as authoritative and verifiable, and therefore, essential to their article. Breaking news reporters are not experts on the content they are assigned to cover, given the wide range of stories they are expected to produce in a limited amount of time. These sources are easily accessible and frequently form the foundation of their story. They have the potential to become the primary media source for breaking news reports, and misconceptions or inaccuracies reflected in these sources may be integrated into articles and disseminated to the public. With a heavy reliance on legal or criminal justice sources, coupled with the limits of deadline stories, this exploratory study echoes previous literature on the limitations and potential concerns of such brief and episodic reporting, in not providing background or context to human trafficking. [51]

For many reporters, other sources of information, such as perspectives of human trafficking victims and advocates, or other experts, were often seen as supplementary. In studies of news reporting of human trafficking, survivors were one of the least-used sources.[52] Reporters who did incorporate victims’ voices in their news stories were the exception; they generally took care to empower, rather than exploit, victims and their stories. This approach suggests that they care for victims’ lived experiences and for telling victims’ stories accurately; they work to satisfy their responsibility as reporters to inform the public in a way that is accurate and thorough. For reporters under pressing deadlines, interviewing a victim with this level of intentionality may not be feasible or advisable; however, reporters can consider moving beyond press releases and legal documents. Use of more extensive information and service provider interviews may provide a more holistic view of the issue and guide the framing of reporting.

Implications for practice and research

The following implications are based on the findings of this study and are consistent with the best practices on reporting human trafficking outlined by the U.S. State Department (2017).[53]

Public awareness efforts

The present study highlights the work constraints and limitations of reporters’ coverage of human trafficking. Organizations may work to raise awareness of trafficking and media coverage limitations in order to educate the public on the complexity and background of human trafficking and create critical consumers of media.

Consistent resources

There is a lack of consistent definitions of human trafficking used across government and nonprofits, contributing to a lack of reliable data, facts, and information available, which is particularly problematic for reporters, who often labor under tight deadlines. Federal trafficking statues can offer a consistent definition for government and nonprofit agencies. In creating resources, agencies should be clear about any statistics provided and include the limitations of human trafficking data.

Language use

News reporters should take care to use appropriate language. Terms like “prostitute” mispresent human trafficking victims by focusing on engagement in criminal acts rather than on experiences of victimization, thus shaping readers’ interpretation. Furthermore, terms like “child prostitute” should not be used; legally minors cannot be defined as such, but as victims of human trafficking. As reporters and editors balance word repetition in articles, care should be taken to examine how such words are consistent with federal statutes and what phrases may perpetuate misperceptions. Future research may work with survivors and advocates to refine best-practice around the use of language to describe individuals’ experiences with trafficking in the media, including sensitive terms for all forms of trafficking.

Foster relationships

Relationships between service providers and reporters can foster more comprehensive coverage as providers seek to educate the community and respond to victim needs. Such relationships may facilitate access to information and sources that could assist reporters in meeting deadlines and aid agencies in raising awareness about human trafficking. This may assist in creating more comprehensive, informed coverage of human trafficking.

Role of editors

Reporters need time and space to provide accurate and thorough accounts of human trafficking. For most reporters, editors dictate news story content and the time and space in which a reporter may engage on a topic. However, human trafficking coverage necessitates a more in-depth approach for accuracy and thoroughness. While editors may not always be able to allow more time or space for an article, they can influence the content and language used in articles. Editors well versed in human trafficking or related issues can guide reporters in using correct language, discuss the implications of excluding background or firsthand sources, and identify if the story is accurate and thorough in its coverage of the topic.

Victim impact

While the present study seeks to elevate victim voice in defining and shaping narratives about human trafficking, less is known about how victims see the process of engaging with media. Future research might explore victims’ perspectives and experiences with media to further define best practices.

Conclusion

This study provides exploratory findings for how reporters understand and report on human trafficking, but it is not without limitations. First, there was a small sample size due in part to reporter time constraints. Daily newspapers in particular work under pressure to meet looming, short deadlines, further challenging researchers in their attempts to pull them away for a voluntary interview.[54] In addition, while the number of news articles on trafficking has increased over time, there remains a modest number of articles on the topic.[55] Second, reporters had limited time for an interview, so probing for more in-depth responses was minimized by interviewers. Finally, some had difficulty recalling details of the reporting process, particularly for reporters that cover breaking news and thus tend to write a large quantity of articles.

As recognized by the participants in this study, reporters have a powerful role in informing the public. The present study highlights how reporters view their role in covering human trafficking and how the limitations of their assignments inform their final product. As human trafficking continues to gain relevance, there is a need to create additional sources of information about human trafficking for reporters, as well as to foster connections among reporters and service providers to provide a broader view of human trafficking. This exploratory study illuminates gaps in knowledge and limitations that reporters experience in covering human trafficking, as well as strategies they use to cover the issue.


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This research was supported by Award 2013-DJ-BX-0012 and Award 2012-DJ-BX-0203 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Department of Justice; Grant #15-VA-GX-0049 awarded to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Victims of Crime’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority or the U.S. Department of Justice.

Emma Peterson

Emma Peterson is a former intern in the Center for Justice Research and Evaluation at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.

Amanda L. Vasquez

Amanda L. Vasquez is a research analyst with the Authority’s Center for Victim Studies. Amanda received her master’s degree in criminology, law, and justice, and a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology and criminal justice from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She is currently finishing her doctorate in criminology, law, and justice, also from UIC, with a concentration in gender and women studies. Amanda is particularly interested in issues related to violence against women, particularly sex trafficking, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. Her dissertation focuses on the intersection of sexual assault and sex trafficking.

Jaclyn Houston-Kolnik

Jaclyn Houston-Kolnik is the manager of the Authority’s Center for Victim Studies. This center leads the Research & Analysis Unit in developing a statewide research agenda that will inform policy, practice, and funding as it relates to victimization and victim services. Jaclyn is a victimologist and received her doctorate in community psychology from DePaul University with a focus on violence against women. Her research centers on sexual assault, human trafficking, and intimate partner violence. She has experience completing program evaluations, utilizing various sophisticated statistical methodologies, and translating traditional academic research into tangible action steps for improving policy and practice. Jaclyn also has a master’s degree in community psychology from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Azusa Pacific University.

Jessica Reichert

Jessica Reichert manages ICJIA’s Center for Justice Research and Evaluation. Her research focus includes violence prevention, corrections and reentry, women inmates, and human trafficking. Her work received the Justice Research and Statistics Association’s Phillip Hoke award in 2011 for outstanding effort in applying empirical analysis to criminal justice policymaking. She has conducted numerous national and state presentations on criminal and juvenile justice issues. Prior to joining ICJIA, Jessica worked at the Office of the Illinois Attorney General and in 2005 received the Distinguished Service Award for her work on behalf of citizens of Illinois. She earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Bradley University and master’s degree in criminal justice from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Jessica is also a part-time Adjunct Instructor at Loyola University Chicago.