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.