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 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, firstname.lastname@example.org
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 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.