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?’”
To address that question, the reporters behind the AP’s Pulitzer-winning series uncovered hundreds of men held captive on the island of Benjina, Indonesia; used satellite technology to track ships fleeing detection; and followed one victim, Myint Naing, back to his hometown after he’d been lost to his family for 22 years. Their investigations had significant impact – they helped free 2,000 individuals from exploitation and push U.S. lawmakers to ban the importation of goods made by forced labor.
The AP series offers invaluable lessons to other reporters covering human trafficking. How do we find what’s new? How does questioning the status quo – the seeming intractability of exploitation – change what and how we report?
The AP writers never lost sight of two key factors – they reported with an eye toward accountability, and they brought the story home for their readers. The reporters set powerful stories like Myint’s against a broader backdrop of government corruption, lax laws, and complicit policing. And by following murky supply chains all the way to Western consumers, they provoked profound change. Human-rights and labor activists had been beating the drum about forced labor in the industry for years. But it wasn’t until corporations faced reputational risk from potential consumer outrage – and governments were shamed – that the issue gained real momentum.
I’d like to lay out a few concrete ideas for how other journalists reporting on all forms of human trafficking, including forced prostitution, might harness the approach so powerfully demonstrated by the AP.
1) Treat human trafficking like it’s a beat – because it is. Before the reporting starts, that means:
2) So what should you write about? Among story ideas unexplored or under-explored:
3) Ask the questions that hold institutions accountable:
4) Rethink the frame.
Very few pieces talk about what I call “life after happily ever after.” The story of Myint is one such rare example. What sorts of services and supports are there for repatriation, reunification with family? How in/effective is the process of getting a specialized visa for victims of trafficking? How many survivors wind up in low-wage, irregular work that seems just a step above their previous trafficking experience?
Covering trafficking isn’t a one-and-done enterprise. If a law was changed for the better – that’s great, but how will it be implemented? If survivors were freed, will others take their place? There are still other men at sea, still corporations hiding behind plausible deniability, government-law enforcement complicity, and consumers demanding rock-bottom prices. There’s no end to the work. But as the AP series reveals, refusing to accept the inevitability of exploitation can change that very abuse – slowly and bit by bit, one story at a time.