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What the News Tells You About Trafficking – And What It Doesn’t
November 3, 2022

If you follow the news regularly, you’ve probably come across news articles about human trafficking and sex trafficking. We know you care about the issue and so you might even pay special attention when you come across them. While news articles are likely to be fairly accurate in the details of what they report, they have a tendency to emphasize particular angles or perspectives. Over time, this might lead to a certain understanding of trafficking that, while not wrong, might be incomplete. Let’s take a look at what regular readers of the news might glean about trafficking – and what might be missed.

What The News Tells You About Trafficking

Three general types of news articles about human and sex trafficking tend to get published regularly: reports on arrests or convictions, survivor services (including survivors speaking out), and industry efforts to support anti-trafficking (e.g. airlines, tech, truckers, hotels, etc.). While we haven’t conducted a systematic review, in our experience, reports on arrests appear to be by far the most frequently published.

What the arrest or conviction reports tell you (besides giving the sense that there are a lot of depraved individuals out there…) are pretty standard facts: who was arrested and where, some information about the victim, and some statement from law enforcement. If the news report is about a larger sting operation, it’ll usually cover the name of the operation, when and where it was conducted, the number of arrests, the number of victims identified, and what the perpetrators were charged with. 

In recent years, these articles have also helped emphasize important information like how minors are likely to become trafficked – often by someone they know, in a relationship of trust built over time, in a process called “grooming” – and that it can happen anywhere, to anyone, although those who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds or are very lonely might be more vulnerable. 

From years of reading this, you might get the impression that…

Trafficking is everywhere, all the time. These arrest and conviction reports are published almost weekly, especially in local news. They’re certainly reported on across the country. Do a news search for trafficking articles and there is always a fresh piece. 

There are only three main actors – even when others are involved. The heavy law-enforcement focus gives the sense that there are three main players: the perpetrator, the victim, and law enforcement. It tends toward portraying each trafficking case as a discrete event that happened between a limited number of individuals. Everything else, including survivor services, is an afterthought. For example, there was a case (an MSN article that is no longer available) about a Little Rock man sentenced to life in prison for the sex trafficking of a 6-year-old, it was doctors who noticed the child presented alarming and suspicious symptoms – but in the article the story isn’t framed that way. The bulk of the text focuses on how the case was built to identify two men who perpetrated the trafficking. Only two short sentences about the mother indicate that she was even involved or faced consequences. How or why she became complicit in her child’s exploitation or how the doctors acted to help the child is left unsaid. What else might we have learned if the doctors or the mother or other witnesses had been interviewed?

Sex trafficking is the only kind of human trafficking that matters – even though labor trafficking is also a major problem. News reports about human trafficking prominently feature sex trafficking (or as they often call it, forced prostitution), especially child sex trafficking. However, this attention bias eclipses another major problem: labor trafficking. It’s not just news reports that do this. Not only is labor trafficking vastly under-reported, it’s also under-investigated and under-prosecuted. Prosecutors are far more likely to pursue sex trafficking cases, even though labor trafficking is more prevalent. 

What You Might Miss

Even though the attention the news gives to trafficking conveys the sense that it happens all around us, there is a disconnect with the myopic focus on the three main actors. There is rarely any context given to the story, rarely any sense that these actors are part of a larger ecosystem, rarely any sense that the pathway to trafficking started long before these actors met, or that the consequences extend past rescue, arrest, and conviction.

From Our Perspective, Trafficking Looks More Like…

Something that happens in community – or, more precisely, when community breaks down. And the strength of the anti-trafficking response hinges upon the strength of the communal response.

Trafficking happens when vulnerable people – or in the case of our work, at-risk children – are unsupported. They might come from families that are broken and struggling to survive. Or they’re children who are lonely, or who have a low sense of self-worth, and really just need someone to pay attention to them. In either case, the more desperate they are (whether for money or affection), the more susceptible they are to the promises of traffickers and the more willing they are to take risks to get what they need.

Combatting trafficking, conversely, requires all hands on deck. Obviously, it requires law enforcement, prosecutors, and the judicial system. One of the most powerful tools we have in anti-trafficking is the deep collaboration between law enforcement, legal advocates, and social service providers for a victim-centered approach, to reduce trauma on the way to seeking justice and compensation.

But combatting trafficking also requires community support: making sure families can afford to educate their children, viable job opportunities, and a network of people to turn to when life gets hard. It requires a societal commitment to fair work at fair wages, whether for large corporations and their supply chains or domestic work in private households. It requires responsible action on the part of the tech community, from the platforms that host potential traffickers to the developers of technological solutions that help fight against trafficking. It requires policymakers that carefully navigate ethical policies on migration. It requires a community of people who can directly or indirectly help protect potential victims, as well as support the healing of those who’ve survived trafficking: such as family, educators, neighbors, church communities, children’s homes, health care providers, counselors, and life skills coaches. People who might notice when a child is struggling; people who might see the red flags, if they know what to look for and can take action.

It requires all of us.


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