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Sex obsession mars slavery coverage, experts tell journalists

by Timothy Large | @timothylarge | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 27 May 2016 04:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sensationalism and superficiality top the list of anti-trafficking experts' gripes about the media

Media coverage of modern slavery is often misinformed, unethical in its treatment of survivors, and obsessed with the sex trade, according to a global survey of leading anti-trafficking experts, with 70 percent of respondents saying shoddy journalism does more harm than good.

Sensationalism, simplification and superficiality topped the list of gripes of almost 50 activists, lawyers, academics and law enforcers active in fighting a crime that affects up to 36 million people worldwide.

I polled the experts from more than 20 countries ahead of two Thomson Reuters Foundation training courses for local journalists in Asia, which accounts for the bulk of the world’s enslaved people. Organised by the foundation's media development arm, the events brought together experts and regional reporters during workshops in Mumbai and in Singapore.

I asked the experts to be candid. They gave it to us straight.

"Bad reporting can do more damage than no coverage," said Matt Friedman, CEO of the Hong Kong-based Mekong Club, which works with companies to try to reduce trafficking in supply chains. "It can create biases against people and add to misconceptions. There is never any room for bad reporting. It is simply dangerous."

Almost 30 percent of respondents said the journalists they came across were "not at all informed" about the scale, scope and underlying causes of trafficking and modern slavery. Areas of greatest ignorance included bonded labour, the differences between smuggling, trafficking and migration, and the trafficking of boys and men.

Some 60 percent of those polled had reservations about dealing with journalists but saw value in working with them.

The greatest value cited was ensuring that vulnerable communities know the risks of trafficking and that victims know their rights. Next came holding governments, law enforcement and businesses to account; mobilising public and political opinion for change; and exposing traffickers and criminal networks through investigations.

The experts gave a long wish list of areas they’d like journalists to focus more on, not least the "push and pull factors and systemic issues that contribute to slavery" along with corruption, consumer and corporate responsibility for slavery, anti-trafficking laws and regulations and care for survivors.

Asked what they'd like journalists to focus less on, the answer was an overwhelming chorus: sex slavery.

Those trafficked into sexual exploitation account for just one-fifth of slavery victims worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization. Most forced labourers are in industries such as agriculture, fishing, mining, construction or domestic work.

"Sex sells, but concentrate on economics, debt bondage and sweat shops and enforcement of labour standards," said one U.S.-based expert.

Almost half of those polled said what annoyed them most about mainstream media coverage of trafficking and slavery was sensationalism. Superficiality, misinformation, simplification and sloppy use of terminology were other top bugbears.

"Many journalists have good intentions but don't understand the danger of sensationalism," one anti-trafficking campaigner said. "Our clients have already been exploited by traffickers and while unintentionally, the media exploits them again for their stories."

The good news for journalists is that most respondents said media coverage of trafficking and slavery tended to range between the "somewhat ethical" and "very ethical" - though they gave plenty of examples of unethical reporting. 

These included identifying victims by name or photograph, wanting survivors to cry during interviews and using inappropriate images to illustrate stories.

"A teenage child victim of sex trafficking gave a television interview," said Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the Washington D.C.-based Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center. "Highly traumatised, it was not realistic for her to give informed consent or understand the implications of the publicity. When the interview appeared on television, she tried to commit suicide."

Another respondent gave the example of being contacted by a producer "who planned to develop a television show in which 'trafficking survivors' would be confronted by a minister in a hotel room and given 16 minutes (or something gimmicky like that) to decide to quit sex work and be 'rescued'. No thought was given to trauma-informed social services, appropriate housing, or mental health treatment.”


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