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 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 Noy Thrupkaew - The story wasn’t new, according to Associated Press international enterprise editor Mary Rajkumar. Forced labor and human trafficking in the Southeast Asian seafood industry was an open secret throughout the region. So why should the AP assign four reporters to more than a year’s worth of work on the story?
“‘What’s new’ is a critical question to ask,” Rajkumar told journalists at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in New Orleans. “But another critical question is, ‘If it isn’t new, then why isn’t anything being done about it?’”
By Chanda Marlowe - Visitors to Backpage.com can look for jobs and shop for appliances, but as of January 9 they can’t shop for sex. The classified ad website closed its adult ads section in the United States, citing government pressure. Clicking on links to body rubs, escorts and strippers takes the user to a screen that reads, “The government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”
For their part, law enforcement officials, including the National Association of Attorneys General, had long accused Backpage of providing an outlet for sex trafficking of minors. And it has been the target of multiple lawsuits.
In one case, a federal appeals court ruled on March 14, 2016 that three teenagers who were trafficked for sex through classified advertisements on Backpage.com could not sue the website—despite the fact the judge said the ads “evoke outrage.”