By Emily Hagstrom, Contributing Writer
February 4, 2021
If there’s a point at which we can count on media to cover human trafficking in the United States, particularly sex trafficking, it’s in the days leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. I’d wager that we are confronted with more depictions of sex trafficking leading up to the game than the entirety of January, designated Human Trafficking Awareness Month. (It should go without saying that trafficking occurs 365 days a year.)
Granted, it’s important to raise awareness about the phenomenon of trafficking, and the Super Bowl provides “a platform to make noise.” But it’s worth recognizing that some of these efforts ultimately contribute to widespread misinformation and mythology surrounding sex trafficking.
If you’re a journalist poised to write about sex trafficking and the Super Bowl, don’t be one of those reporters.
Avoid perpetuating the myth that all human trafficking involves sex, for example. Sex trafficking is just one component of human trafficking. Labor trafficking occurs throughout the U.S. at higher rates compared to sex trafficking (though the two may overlap) and its harms can be just as severe. When journalists focus only on sex trafficking, they are erasing the experiences of, and could be diverting needed resources from, individuals exploited for the myriad forms of labor required to put on such grandiose events.
Media coverage this time of year also reinforces the myth that all human trafficking occurs in an underground, illegal operation. However, people who experience labor trafficking are sometimes placed in what appear to be perfectly legal establishments. As awareness of this grows, so will our ability as a society to root out trafficking.
And importantly, there is no evidence to support outsized claims that sex trafficking increases around the Super Bowl. While it’s important to encourage people to remain diligent and to train people who work in transportation and hospitality, for example, to recognize trafficking, concentrating these efforts around the Super Bowl sends a confusing message. News outlets that typically avoid reporting about trafficking and then mount huge awareness campaigns around the Super Bowl can lead us to think events like the Super Bowl cause human trafficking. That is patently untrue. Conditions such as poverty and civil unrest contribute significantly to human trafficking, as well as societal oppression and marginalization (i.e., seeing some people as less human and less deserving than others). We need to train people to recognize exploitation, yes, but we also need to raise awareness of and put resources toward understanding the conditions that allow human trafficking to flourish, so that we can prevent trafficking from happening in the first place.
Conflating the Super Bowl with human trafficking also misleads audiences into thinking that trafficking doesn’t exist in small towns and rural areas. But anyone, anywhere can experience exploitation. Human trafficking is not exclusively a city issue; it exists everywhere and, in fact, can be enabled in rural areas due to lack of awareness and visibility.
Advertisers do a disservice by plastering seasonal billboards with images of fair-skinned and fair-haired girls and young women, often shackled or gagged, meant to represent the typical sex trafficking victim. In reality, trafficking is more complex than that. White people are far from the only victims of trafficking; people across categories of age, gender, race, ethnicity are at risk of exploitation (although some groups are more vulnerable). And victims are more likely to be controlled through coercion than to be bound in chains. In short, these billboards make it more, not less, difficult to recognize trafficking.
People experiencing human trafficking will often feel anxious, depressed, and fearful--but they might not know how to define the situation or how to seek help. There’s a psychological component to trafficking that may involve a lengthy grooming process, isolation, and drug dependency, for example. In short, human trafficking can materialize as a wide range of scenarios. It’s important for media campaigns to communicate all the ways trafficking occurs so that individuals better understand how to recognize and respond to the signs, and so that victims recognize their situations and know where to turn for help.
Finally, media leading up to the Super Bowl unfailingly conflate sex trafficking with sex work, which are decidedly not the same thing. The fact is that some individuals choose to work in the sex trade. If evidence suggests that commercial sex ads increase around the Super Bowl, that does not mean that sex trafficking increases in tandem. It is unfair to exploit the occasion of the Super Bowl to target and persecute sex workers who are not trafficked; and to conflate the two evidences sloppy reporting. Don’t be that reporter.
Emily Hagstrom (@emhagstrom) is a writer, policy analyst, and political consultant in Durham, NC. She is an advocate for violence prevention and social justice and has written for the National Women’s Law Center, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Women AdvaNCe, among other organizations.
By Emily Hagstrom, Contributing Writer
A few summers ago, I was driving through my hometown of Hendersonville, North Carolina, with the radio blasting. When a commercial break interrupted my singing, I was ready to change the station. But as my hand reached for the dial, I heard the word “trafficking.”
Surprised, I kept listening, hoping to make some sense of the context. The disembodied voice continued to tell how trafficking can (and does) happen anywhere in North Carolina, including in Henderson County. It described the signs of human trafficking and offered a number to call if the listener recognized these signs among members of the community. Anyone in the community? I thought. Human trafficking—here in Henderson County? Yes, the radio ad confirmed. Human trafficking occurs all over North Carolina—particularly rural counties nestled along interstate highways like I-40.
The radio ad was part of the awareness Project NO REST brings to human trafficking of young adults across the state of North Carolina. And just like that, my entire outlook on human trafficking changed. It was no longer something abstract--far away from me; it was something that could impact my friends and family.
Even as a violence prevention and response advocate, I realized how little I knew about human trafficking. I knew that sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking are, tragically, common; I knew the signs, and I was trained in response. But trafficking? The last thing I expected was for an advertisement on the radio to disrupt the myths in my head about human trafficking.
And that’s part of the success of Project NO REST, or North Carolina Organizing and Responding to the Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking of Children, a five-year project funded by the US Children’s Bureau. It uses a multidisciplinary approach to help people across North Carolina become aware of and understand human trafficking, partnering with social workers, law enforcement, public health officials, doctors, university scholars, and others to achieve the project’s mission.
The goals of Project NO REST are: “to increase awareness of human trafficking affecting children and youth [under 25 years of age], especially those in the child welfare system; to reduce the number of these youth who are trafficked; and to improve outcomes for those who are trafficked.” Specific tasks include creating data sources that more accurately describe human trafficking rates in North Carolina, training community members across the state to recognize human trafficking signs and report human trafficking, and creating media campaigns to raise awareness of human trafficking—like the one I heard on the radio while motoring through Hendersonville.
According to Dr. Dean Duncan III, Principal Investigator for Project NO REST, the project’s greatest achievement has been raising awareness of human trafficking across North Carolina. “As a result of ads we ran, we were able to increase the number of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline,” Duncan said. “In the first year [of Project NO REST], we increased calls by 150%.” Duncan also noted that the Project NO REST team was intentional about creating media in which human trafficking survivors could recognize themselves and their stories: “We really focused on how we talked about individuals who get trafficked and the way they were represented in our media campaign.”
Initiatives like Project NO REST give journalists an opportunity to improve the way they report on human trafficking. And when community members (law enforcement officers, doctors, social workers, etc.) are trained in human trafficking signs and response, they are able to speak more accurately to reporters about human trafficking cases, while maintaining the privacy, safety and dignity of survivors/victims.
For anti-trafficking organizations, Project NO REST’s media (e.g., website, social media, advertisements) are a model for presenting information about human trafficking to the general public. Social media posts, radio advertisements, and fact sheets generated by Project NO REST reflect care with the facts communicated and how they are communicated. Authors take care with language to discuss the issue without shaming people who experience human trafficking. Importantly, Project NO REST also aims to make accurate North Carolina human trafficking data sources available to the public to bolster reporting on the issue—a desperately needed resource, as little accurate human trafficking data is publicly available. The more dependable and credible resources journalists have, the better equipped they are to report on human trafficking issues.
Further, knowing the signs of human trafficking allows journalists to identify and follow leads on human trafficking stories. In addition, that knowledge can help journalists to avoid perpetuating stereotypes about trafficking. Persistent human trafficking myths imagine human trafficking victims and survivors as “prostitutes” or as victims restrained with ropes or chains, filthy and with sunken eyes, snatched off the street or “taken” at a public event (like the Super Bowl). But as Project NO REST Investigator Kiricka Yarbough Smith notes, traffickers are more likely to use a “psychological bond” to control and exploit their victims. “It’s usually someone that people trust.” That simple fact could be instrumental in reframing news stories about trafficking.
Smith, who also serves as Human Trafficking Director at the NC Council for Women and Youth Involvement, said she’s seen a difference over the last five years in how reporters talk about human trafficking. “We definitely have come a long way,” she says. “I like that now we’re moving away from criminalizing victims of human trafficking.” Reporters still cover trafficking as breaking news, she noted, but are increasingly interested in more expansive stories that explore the causes and consequences of trafficking, and that examine initiatives to fight trafficking.
Project NO REST has already improved the way people in North Carolina—especially journalists—think and report about human trafficking. At the very least, thanks to one 30-second advertisement years ago, it changed me.
Note: The Irina Project co-founders served as members of Project NO REST 2016-2018 and were involved in the organization’s public awareness campaign.
By Emily Hagstrom. On July 8, Jeffrey Epstein, one of the most powerful financiers in the United States, was arrested and charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. His alleged victims? Children—girls as young as 14 years old.
As Epstein faces these charges in federal court, media outlets across the country are breaking the story. The case’s widespread coverage highlights the gravity of the allegations Epstein faces. Yet, a scan of the news, and of social media posts like one from Arizona Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, point out that several outlets have described the case irresponsibly. Strewn with phrases like “underage women” and “sex with minors,” stories reporting on the Epstein case appear to obscure the facts.
Epstein, who pleaded not guilty, is charged with raping, sexually violating, exploiting, and facilitating the exploitation of children for money. When news outlets substitute phrases like “underage women” for girls or children, and “sex with minors” for rape, they assign a level of consent and autonomy to the victims and survivors in this case. “Sex with minors” implies that children can consent to sex for money—however, under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, there is no such thing as a “child prostitute.” And increasingly, state legislators have enacted “safe harbor” laws (PDF) to recognize trafficked youth as victims/survivors of trauma, not criminals. Journalists might also recall that, following a sustained campaign by anti-trafficking groups (#nosuchthing), the Associated Press in 2016 declared the phrase “child prostitute” has no place in news coverage. Continued use of the phrase contributes to misinformation about sex trafficking and can stigmatize and retraumatize trafficking survivors.
Beyond this, referring to children as “underage women” contributes to the hyper-sexualization of young girls. A 2007 American Psychological Association meta-analysis (PDF) shows that entertainment media and advertising often portray young girls as sex objects, shown wearing more revealing clothing than boys their age and framed to imply sexual maturity. According to UNICEF USA, sexual objectification contributes to gender-based violence—including sex trafficking of young girls. That means that by reporting on sex trafficking irresponsibly, media outlets can contribute to—instead of mitigate—the underlying societal influences that allow sex trafficking to take place.
Further, multiple news stories cite that investigators found “a vast trove” of pornographic photos featuring “young-looking” women and girls in Epstein’s New York home. In claims against Epstein, women have also stated that Epstein and his peers coerced them into taking sexually explicit photographs as children. In reporting on this evidence, media outlets have failed to point out that child pornography is sexual exploitation(PDF), and constitutes human trafficking when used for commercial gain. Failing to make this connection not only obscures federal sex trafficking law; it also downplays the severity of child pornography and mutes the allegations against Epstein. Child pornography is always evidence of sexual exploitation.
Language matters. Now more than ever, journalists must pay attention to their words. Let girls be the children they are. Call sexual exploitation what it is. Extra care and attention are crucial to accurately describing the complex world of sex trafficking. Without responsible reporting, media outlets run the risk of making the problem worse instead of better.
By Angela R. Clark. My first year in high school, I fell in love with Journalism 101. I loved the idea that there was an entire profession devoted to telling an unbiased truth. I was especially captivated by the notion of “whistle-blowing”—that journalists, working with sources, could expose bad actors and hold them accountable for their wrongdoing.
One reason for the fascination was that keeping family secrets was a way of life for me as a child. Finding the courage to blow the whistle on the violence in my family represented a significant leap in my personal development; sharing my story with journalists has been one part of that.
Through this experience, I’ve come to believe that being heard is a basic human need—as fundamental as food and shelter. And I’ve realized that journalists, entrusted with listening to others and then building news from that material, are in a unique position to assist survivors of trauma in their recovery.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting a news interview as therapy session. Rather, I’m referring to journalism’s emphasis on engaged, active listening, as it relates to survivors’ stories about trafficking and other kinds of trauma. Over the last two years I’ve been interviewed by several journalists, and each interviewer has contributed to my healing by being present—their attention and energies focused on the task of listening to and understanding my story.
It hasn’t always gone well. One reporter, for example, was typing on his keyboard while maintaining eye contact with me. However, I could see his divided attention while he tried to multi-task. And the published article had a fundamental error—it reported my name incorrectly (the reporter graciously corrected that). Another reporter insisted on sticking to a list of prepared questions, even though they didn’t make sense to ask once he had heard my story. I did my best to honor his choice, but I can’t imagine the resulting broadcast piece did much to help audiences understand the issue of trafficking. Content and context that was more valuable went unreported.
Admittedly, it’s hard for a journalist to be fully prepared for first-person accounts of trauma, which could include incidents of rape, torture, murder, war crimes, and bullying, for example. In several instances, an interviewer has teared up unexpectedly or let out an audible gasp as I’ve related my story. Your training may tell you that it’s not professional to reveal emotions during an interview. However, I understand the way trauma works, and that we don’t always get to choose our reaction—if something in my story evokes your personal experience, it’s OK for us to take a moment to honor your pain, too. I can respect journalism’s emphasis on reportorial dispassion, but, given the statistics, I recognize that my interviewer might be a survivor of trauma, too.
With that in mind, consider that reporting on trafficking often focuses on the hard, ugly parts and stops short of recognizing (and honoring) the work survivors have done to heal and recover. Yet it’s precisely because of their ability to do more than survive that they are in a position to blow the whistle on trafficking, and to offer you information, education, and personal narrative. When a journalist’s focus shifts, to engage with a survivor’s present-day life as vital to the “whole story,” it challenges the stereotype of survivors as “forever broken” by demonstrating that we can recover and contribute wholeheartedly to our communities. That’s the kind of story that can leave us all feeling hopeful, determined to make improvements in laws, resources, and systems to eradicate trafficking and aid survivors.
Survivor-sources are an important part of journalism’s truth-telling mission to uncover abuses and bring about positive change. I’m willing to tell my story because I want to make a difference with how we interrupt abuse and violence in our families and communities. A story about change is the story worth telling.
By Kelly Twedell. Based on the many harrowing news reports about human trafficking and sexual violence, one might wonder why victims don’t just ask for help, or why they don’t come forward to give impact statements to police upon an initial arrest during a sting operation. Society’s long and shameful history of meeting claims of sexual violence with doubt and derision suggests at least one answer.
In fact, there are many barriers to seeking help. At 5 Sparrows in Cumberland County, North Carolina, we asked many of the 107 victims of sex and labor trafficking we served in 2017-2018 what were some of the obstacles to seeking and utilizing services. Following are some of the answers we have permission to share:
“He is my boyfriend, and I’d get in trouble.”
“I thought I’d get arrested with the drugs.”
“I don’t trust the police; sometimes they are the ones paying for my time.”
“He gives me some of the money, and I need it to pay bills.”
“What happens next to me?”
“I thought he would change, but it kept getting worse.”
“I lost hope.”
“He had a gun, and I was afraid.”
“He threatened to hurt my parents if I told.”
“I am part of this, and I don’t want to go to jail.”
These statements – evidencing fear, despair, and shame – are just some of the reasons that trafficking victims may not seek help. Researchers have noted the potent effects of psychological harm directed at victims by their traffickers. “This ingrained fear, lack of knowledge about alternatives, systemic isolation leading to a mistrust in others, and physical and psychological confinement is what causes many victims to be afraid to ask for help,” wrote Gonzalez, Spencer and Smith in a 2017 study of the experiences of women exiting sex trafficking.
For service providers like us, of course, a first step is to identify victims. Often, in the screening process, we realize that a person does not understand they have been exploited. Some victims mistakenly believe they were complicit in their exploitation because they were in a romantic relationship with their trafficker. Others have told us, “I agreed to do this on my own; nobody is forcing me.” The myths about trafficking and the lies of the traffickers have to be unraveled before victims come to understand they were exploited for others’ personal gain.
Another barrier to seeking help is substance addiction. A 2014 study of the healthcare consequences of trafficking found that among 102 survivors, 84.3% reported they were alcohol or drug dependent while they were being trafficked. In the many victim testimonies we have heard, women said that drugs helped them ‘zone out’ from the sex work. Others said that drugs, mainly heroin and cocaine, helped them stay awake through the night to meet the quotas set for them by their traffickers.
Some victims become caught in the perpetual cycle of drug addiction while being exploited.
Understandably, they may fear they’ll be arrested for drugs “willfully” accepted as part of their “compensation” from the trafficker, when in fact the trafficker has likely used drugs as a means of controlling the victim. Fortunately, Cumberland County judges are educated about what trafficking looks like, and as a result they might choose to defer charges or grant a continuance in a case while a victim seeks treatment.
An extended restoration program can be part of a broader effort to provide trafficking victims with lasting results (as opposed to the quick-fix of being bonded out of jail). However, fear of the unknown discourages some victims from asking for help. Knowing there will be a five- to seven-day detox period from drugs and unsure whether they are safe in the community where they were victimized exacerbates feelings of insecurity. Some worry that victims who leave a detox program prematurely will disclose the names and locations of victims still in treatment. Others fear the prospect of being separated from children temporarily when they enter treatment, or of losing custody altogether.
The fact is, a person becomes ready to ask for and accept help in her own time (I say “her” because 96 percent of the victims we served at 5 Sparrows during this time were female or identified as female). An initial meeting with organizations like ours establishes for victims where we are and what we do. Sometimes, they contact us to begin the process of restoration, only to return to trafficking – it’s not unusual for that cycle to repeat itself. In some cases, it has taken victims three to four attempts before they complete a restoration program and reintegrate with a healthier view on life and on themselves. Each person’s healing journey looks different, and we respect that.
People are mistaken if they believe that trafficking victims do not want help – on the contrary, our experience shows that they want help, but they might not be sure what that looks like. Victim service organizations are in a position to start the conversation and illuminate the range of resources available to them without cost.
Nicole Gonzalez, Chelsea Spencer and Sandra Stith, “Moving to Restoration: The Experiences of Women Exiting Sex Trafficking,” Journal of Human Trafficking (2017), advance online publication, https://doi.org/10.1080/23322705.2017.1413856
Laura J. Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel, “The Health Consequences of Sex Trafficking and Their Implications for Identifying Victims in Healthcare Facilities,” The Annals of Health Law 23 (2014): 61-91.
By Lisa Long. Between July 2016 and June 2017, Cumberland County, North Carolina, had 27 human trafficking-related cases, exceeding the number of cases in nearby counties, including Wake County, which has a population three times greater than that of Cumberland. Does this mean that the Cumberland County/Fayetteville area has a greater human trafficking problem than anywhere else in the state? On the surface, it might look that way. Behind the statistics, however, is a collaborative community effort to fight against human trafficking in this particular jurisdiction. These anti-trafficking collaborations are made up of numerous moving parts, each turning in concert with the others. Coordination is necessary for the successful investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases. The slightest misstep, and the entire effort may be in vain. In my experience, several components are vital to creating a successful anti-trafficking collaboration.
First, there must be a commitment and investment from the law enforcement officers tasked with the initial job of investigating the case. Fayetteville Police Department (FPD) and Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) each have dedicated human trafficking units within their departments. Their sole investigative purpose is to track down perpetrators and uncover sufficient evidence to make a case stick. While their commitment to investigate and uncover evidence is significant, their work also relies on (providing prosecutors with material critical to making and winning a case?) an effective prosecutorial element to advance. Cumberland County now has a dedicated Assistant District Attorney to work the human trafficking cases that FPD and CCSO present to them. Without having in place the combination of investigators and prosecutors trained in human trafficking, many traffickers would never be prosecuted or see the inside of a courtroom. Imagine the devastation and heartache the victim and the investigative parties experience if the case is never prosecuted.
Second, to ensure that the trafficking victim is mentally prepared, feels physically safe and supported, and is available to testify, it is imperative for an effective non-governmental organization (NGO) that serves victims of human trafficking to be involved from the beginning of the process. In Cumberland County/Fayetteville, this NGO is 5 Sparrows. 5 Sparrows is often involved on the front end of these cases, providing guidance and insight in relation to victims. Prior to the raid of a suspected trafficking site, for example, local law enforcement in this area will provide the NGO with the broad outlines of an operation and its goals, allowing 5 Sparrows to prepare for victims’ needs accordingly. This planning includes reaching out to restoration programs to secure a bed; bringing in foreign-language interpreters; or simply having food, clothing and hygiene items available for the victims. Traffickers intentionally foster in their victims a fear of law enforcement. The presence of support groups like 5 Sparrows may be the impetus for a victim to talk with law enforcement about their situation.
Efforts to systemically combat sexual assault and domestic violence have expanded in important ways over the last 20 to 30 years. Across the nation, there are numerous shelters, resources and treatment programs in place that specialize in providing victims of sexual assault and/or domestic violence with “wraparound services” or individualized plans of care to assist them in a successful recovery once they signal they want this kind of help. However, we haven’t had the same success when it comes to serving victims of human trafficking. This is in part because treating victims of human trafficking requires a drastically different approach than serving victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
For a successful anti-trafficking coalition, each partner must understand the particular nuances to treating and serving human trafficking victims. Human trafficking victims have survived multiple sexual assaults, and in some cases multiple individuals have inflicted intimate partner violence upon them. While survivors of human trafficking need to be served using a victim-centered approach, individuals providing services must also understand the pathology of a person that has endured extreme trauma and pain.
A final component vital to a successful anti-trafficking collaboration is media attention to this issue and coverage by local media. Some popular media, including news, have contributed to the normalization of the exploitation of individuals for sex and labor. In turn, these media representations may stigmatize survivors and create barriers to public understanding of the severity and implications of this horrible crime. An easy and immediate change that journalists can make is to choose their words appropriately. For example, one should never refer to a juvenile human trafficking victim as a prostitute, a recent addition to the Associated Press Stylebook that governs most reporting. Other language-based considerations include referring to “johns” instead as sex-buyers, and “pimps” as traffickers. These might sound like minor adjustments, but in fact, they can go a long way in shifting public attitudes, a necessary component to successful anti-trafficking efforts.
Trafficking occurs in all 50 states and in all communities, whether urban, suburban or rural. Counting cases is likely to remain a facet of news coverage, but requires context to be genuinely meaningful for audiences. Municipalities with a high number of cases might be those that have trained a wide swath of their population to detect and respond to trafficking – teachers and utility workers, for example. In addition to exercising care with word choice, journalists covering trafficking might ask questions of sources to get at what’s behind the numbers, such as:
Lisa Long is the program coordinator for the Master of Justice Administration Program at Methodist University. She is also employed part-time by 5 Sparrows, a Fayetteville, NC-based non-profit organization that provides victim service support to human trafficking victims. There, she is the service support coordinator and the training director. Lisa is a graduate of Methodist University, where she received a master’s degree in justice administration. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and journalism from the University of Kentucky. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in criminal justice with a concentration in behavioral science from Nova Southeastern University.
Prior to joining Methodist University, Lisa worked as a criminal intelligence analyst for the Fayetteville (NC) Police Department. While at FPD, Lisa specialized in cases involving sex trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assaults, missing persons and runaways. Lisa was instrumental in the formation of the Crime Information Center at the Fayetteville Police Department, which is a real-time crime center, providing live closed-circuit camera feeds and intelligence data to police officers in the field.
Lisa is also actively involved in community. She serves as a board member and secretary for the Greater Fayetteville United non-profit organization. She is also a board member for the Fayetteville Police Athletic League. She is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society and the Alpha Phi Sigma National Criminal Justice Honor Society. In her spare time, Lisa enjoys working out, listening to all types of music and spending time with family. Lisa has four sons, and her husband Mike is retired from the U.S. Army.
By Erin Coyle. Following recent undercover operations targeting prostitution in North Carolina and Florida, law enforcement authorities in those states posted to their social media accounts booking photographs—“mug shots”—of individuals swept up in the stings, inviting the public to add comments. “Naming and shaming” suspected sex buyers is sometimes wielded as an effective way to combat sex trafficking by targeting the demand for commercial sex—but the claim is difficult to prove. What is clear, however, is that when individuals whose mug shots appear online are found to be arrested for prostitution-related charges or victims of human trafficking, the shame can be particularly harmful and long-lasting—“a permanent digital scarlet letter,” as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union put it in an interview.
Many arguments exist to discourage the publication of booking photographs. In the United States, some federal courts recently recognized privacy interests in association with booking photographs that news outlets requested be disclosed under a federal law. Legislatures in several states also have considered limiting access to booking photographs in the last six years.
Privacy scholars define privacy as a right to be let alone(PDF), human dignity, autonomy, secrecy (PDF), and a right to protect (PDF) one’s self and one’s information from unwanted exposure.
Scholarship connects privacy to people’s need to control how others may access information about them—especially access to information that people might feel embarrassed, humiliated, or vulnerable from having released to others without their consent. Although the fact that a person was arrested commonly is considered information that might provide details about the focus and effectiveness of law enforcement, images that reflect a person’s arrest may display a highly stressful experience worthy of privacy protection. Concerns that publicly disclosing mug shots might cause depicted persons to endure shame, reputational harm, and exploitation increased after commercial websites started posting mug shots online, some demanding money in exchange for removing the photographs.
Law enforcement agencies routinely photograph arrested persons to record who has been charged with involvement in criminal activity, and those booking photographs are public records that may be disclosed under many state public records laws. Law enforcement in many states, release booking photographs via the press, social media accounts, or websites. Advocates for publicly releasing the images say sharing them sheds light on law enforcement processes, protects against misidentification, and acts as a deterrent against future criminal activity. Journalists also advocate for disclosure for greater oversight of the criminal justice process.
In the United States, a booking photograph indicates a person has been arrested, but does not indicate that a court of law has found (or will find) the photographed person guilty of committing a crime. Nonetheless, an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion stated in 2011 that a mug shot “is a vivid symbol of criminal accusation, which, when released to the public, intimates, and is often equated with, guilt. Further, a booking photograph captures the subject in the vulnerable and embarrassing moments immediately after being accused, taken into custody, and deprived of most liberties.” A person whose mug shot is publicly distributed may be perceived as guilty in the court of public opinion.
In the opinion of the court, booking photographs are created for law enforcement purposes, and releasing those records could “result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Accordingly, in the Eleventh Circuit, those records may be considered exempt from public release under the Freedom of Information Act unless releasing the images would serve a public interest that could justify their disclosure. Privacy interests associated with booking photographs sought under the federal law must be balanced carefully against the public interest served by disclosure on a case-by-case basis.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012 and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 also recognized privacy interests in association with booking photographs, which may allow federal agencies not to publicly disclose mug shots. The Sixth Circuit's majority opinion specifically addressed concerns about modern technology that may exacerbate threats to privacy. In the twentieth century, booking photographs typically were publicly released via newspapers or television broadcasts, then later stored in places where someone would have to physically retrieve a copy at a later time. In this century, booking photographs posted online may be found and viewed for years by any person—prospective employers, landlords, or romantic partners. Sixth Circuit Judge Deborah L. Cook wrote, “A disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.”
In the past six years, some states have considered ways to protect privacy interests that may be harmed when booking photographs are released online—either by law enforcement or by commercial websites that publish mug shots online. In 2017 Illinois limited public access to any booking photographs—only allowing the release to a person with a relevant case or claim. California, New Hampshire, and Alabama adopted statutory provisions specifically to protect the privacy and safety of human trafficking victims by addressing identifying information and images of trafficking victims or persons arrested on prostitution-related charges. California’s Penal Code requires law enforcement agents to inform any person who reports being a victim of human trafficking of a right for the victim’s name, address, and image to be confidential as well as for the name, address, and image of the victim’s family members to remain confidential. New Hampshire’s Trafficking in Person’s law similarly states that the identity and images of any human trafficking victim as well as the identity and images of any victim’s family members shall be confidential. Alabama’s Human Trafficking Safe Harbor law makes arrest photographs for some prostitution-related arrests exempt from public disclosure and prevents publication of those images, unless permitted by a court order. Said Rep. Jack Williams (R-Birmingham), who sponsored Alabama’s law, “We're trying to look at these women less as criminals and more as victims, and we don't want to see them be victimized.” Preventing publication of images, however, might be considered unconstitutional.
Scholarship asserts that publishing mug shots might threaten privacy interests of depicted persons. Considering that trafficking victims lack autonomy when forced into what some anti-trafficking advocates call a modern form of slavery, and could face stigma due to those experiences, publicly disclosing records of this loss of self-determination could be considered a further threat to their autonomy, control over information, and, thus, privacy. Some state and federal laws likely may allow law enforcement agencies to shield those images from disclosure when the resulting harm to victims’ privacy interests would outweigh public interests served by releasing the images.
Erin Coyle, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org), is an associate professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Her research focuses on privacy, access to government information, and freedom of expression.
By Jessa Dillow Crisp - In 2015 at the Colorado State Capitol, I publicly shared my story of surviving sex trafficking. I wanted to educate others about the realities of this nefarious crime and longed for my pain to give hope to another individual. In the weeks following, I had no idea that media outlets from around the world would seize my story and seek me out for intimate details of the traumas I endured.
After vulnerably sharing elements of my painful history, I noticed that journalists misrepresented my experiences—making my story their story for sensationalized shock value. Details of my story were changed, and liberties were taken, such as some outlets lifting my personal pictures and videos from the web and using them without consent. These experiences took me by surprise; I thought that if someone was not a trafficker or buyer, they would protect me. But in fact, one of the hardest things I have had to deal with since my escape and in my recovery process is working through feelings of being re-exploited by media. At times, I felt like my own being did not belong to me, but rather to the number of views that my story brought without my permission.
Through my experience with media outlets and journalists, I have come to realize that the desire for exclusive content can lead individuals to promote a culture of sensationalism. In this process, many well-intentioned journalists are doing things that are inhumane—creating and sustaining a culture where it has become okay to exploit the exploited. Where the amazing feat of trauma endured is not enough for the story, rather acceptable curiosity is taken over by a desire to know how many hours someone was raped, or asking the number of men who have used their body for sexual fantasies. Where an interviewee’s boundaries are considered obstacles that need to be overcome, rather than healthy indicators of the difficult healing journey that has taken place.
This voyeurism and quest for details are not the only ways that media sensationalize sex trafficking. Another way is through the use of pictures that highlight the sadistic pain of victims and images that misrepresent the phenomenon of trafficking. Some examples include: a begrimed girl whose hands are tied up and mouth is gagged, barcodes stamped across one’s forehead, or hands erotically bound in ropes or chains—most of these are stock photos, widely available and free of charge.
These sensationalized pictures are counterproductive to creating change surrounding human trafficking. Instead, they are another way to perpetuate the problem. Using these kinds of pictures and sensationalizing stories can create more harm than good for audiences. If concerned citizens are seeing human trafficking only through the lens of the media where trauma is glorified or misrepresented through inaccurate reporting, sensationalized captions, and pictures that do not accurately depict the crime, then victims caught in trafficking will struggle to relate to the coverage and may not reach out for help. In addition, community members will not be able to recognize trafficking when it takes place within their neighborhood.
Since a person is not the sum of their trauma, media should use pictures that accurately portray the story they are sharing, including the person’s current pursuits and future dreams. Some alternative illustrations they could use would include a person smiling, a person engaging in a hobby, and the artwork/photography survivors have created. Additional suggestions for media can be found on my Tips for Using Images When Reporting on Human Trafficking.
Despite the negative experiences I have had with some reporters, I have also had some incredibly healing experiences with a few journalists. Through this, I believe that journalism is needed to create an accurate awareness surrounding human trafficking and give hope to individuals who have experienced this crime. In this place, I hope journalists will seriously consider their responsibility to the individuals whose stories are being recreated for their article. By forgoing sensationalism and respecting survivor sources and the stories they share, journalists educate their community of followers and ultimately empower victims to not only tell their narratives, but also move into a place of thriving.
Jessa Dillow Crisp, email@example.com
A respected speaker, writer, and mentor, Jessa Dillow Crisp uses her childhood experience of severe abuse and trafficking to illustrate both the stark realities of human trafficking and the truth that healing transformation is possible. After her escape and recovery process, Jessa got her degree in counseling, and she is presently working on her master’s degree as a step toward obtaining a doctorate in clinical psychology. In addition to making some of the best lattes in Colorado, Jessa is the co-founder and Executive Director of BridgeHope and is part of the Rebecca Bender Initiative speakers’ team. Some highlights of Jessa’s career include training the Department of Homeland Security to identify and respond to human trafficking, speaking with legislators at the Colorado State Capitol, speaking at the National Character Leadership Symposium, and filming with Real Women Real Stories. Jessa inspires others through speaking engagements around the world, gives hope through mentoring other survivors of human trafficking, and provides high-quality training and consultation services to anti-trafficking organizations.
By Minh Dang - In the midst of one of Southern California’s worst storms in over a decade, the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking (“the Council”) met for a strategic planning retreat. I had convinced other members of the Council and the State Department to come to California in February, since most of our meetings were scheduled in Washington, D.C.
Although California failed to extend a warm welcome for our first session, I felt immense gratitude for this group of people and for the existence of the Council. Council members are innovative, thoughtful, committed, and willing to bring their whole selves to the table. Members hail from a diversity of nationalities, citizenship status, gender identity and geographic locations. Like any other group of people, our perspectives on specific issues don’t always align. However, what is similar among all of us and is salient throughout our work is our shared and deep commitment to using our experiences and expertise to prevent the suffering of others.
By Barbara Barnett - For journalists telling the stories of individuals trafficked into forced prostitution, one of the challenges is crafting a narrative that accurately characterizes the physical danger and emotional abuse victims experience. These narrative choices can affect the ways that audiences think about the crime of trafficking and its victims.
One story-telling technique is the use of first-person narratives, which allows trafficked individuals to describe their circumstances, from their perspectives, in their own words – an important consideration when writing about a crime that denies its victims the ability to speak or act in their own interests.
For journalists telling the stories of individuals trafficked into forced prostitution, one of the challenges is crafting a narrative that accurately characterizes the physical danger and emotional abuse victims experience. These narrative choices can affect the ways that audiences think about the crime of trafficking and its victims.