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Human Trafficking Center

Is the Media Helping or Harming Anti-Trafficking Efforts?


Nov 2014



by Dana Bruxvoort, HTC Marketing Coordinator

In my weekly monitoring of human trafficking news, I see the above image (or some variation of it) often.

And it concerns me.

As a marketing professional, I’m well-acquainted with the power of words and images to shape public opinion and knowledge.

As a researcher and academic in the field of human trafficking, I’m worried that images like these are cultivating public misperceptions about human trafficking and setting a dangerous precedent for U.S. public and political agendas.

Any undergraduate journalism student learns about agenda-setting and cultivation theory, or the power of the media to shape individuals’ general beliefs about the world and their specific attitudes toward certain issues. The issues and subjects the mass media select and portray more frequently and prominently lead people to assume and act as if those issues are most important.

The frequency with which the media uses images such as the one pictured above poses several dangers to counter-human trafficking efforts:

  1. Attaching images like this one to human trafficking coverage cultivates the misconception that human trafficking is primarily about commercial sex and primarily happens to women and girls. In reality, trafficking for forced labor is actually more prevalent than sex trafficking. And even within sex trafficking, men and boys are exploited, albeit in smaller numbers. While sex trafficking is an important problem to combat, it shouldn’t be at the expense of also focusing on labor trafficking.
  1. An emphasis on sex trafficking to the exclusion of labor trafficking skews legislative protection and service provision for trafficking survivors. Most legislation – including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act – focuses almost exclusively on women and girls exploited in commercial sex. It’s not a stretch to correlate this legislative focus with the high levels of media coverage about this specific segment of trafficking.
  1. This image is simplistic and sensationalized. It grabs the viewers’ attention, but at what cost? Placing the word “slave” on the woman’s bare shoulder imposes a label she most likely has not chosen for herself, and this label ignores the complexities of human trafficking. Simplifying and sensationalizing victims’ and survivors’ experiences is insensitive and disempowering. When covering a sensitive topic such as human trafficking, the media must be careful to not inflict more harm on individuals who have already endured exploitation. This includes understanding the subject matter of the photos used and making every effort to have written permission to publish any image of someone who was formerly a victim of trafficking. This permission should come from either the individual, a parent or guardian if the subject is under 18 years of age, or from an organization representing the survivor.
  1. The goal of anti-trafficking efforts is to un-commodify human beings, but sexualized and evocative images like this – and the hundreds of others like it — only further commodify women. The barcode on the woman’s shoulder sends the message that she is a sex product to be bought and sold – exactly the message anti-trafficking work should be trying to counter. All images included in anti-trafficking messaging should send messages of empowerment. Polaris, Anti-Slavery International and Free the Slaves, for example, have images and messaging that are careful to empower rather than simplify and commodify the plights of survivors of trafficking.

In a world saturated with mass media, anti-trafficking activists can’t ignore the influence of images like this one. Media influences public opinion, which in turn influences decision-makers, who then dictate policy formation. This places the media at the root of the perpetuation of misinformation that can spiral into negative outcomes for those who have experienced trafficking.

The public’s capacity to formulate and express opinion is the basis of democracy. But because public opinion and media coverage are so closely related and both directly affect policy, it’s vital that we as consumers exercise due diligence in looking past surface images and news coverage to find the true answers. It’s also time for journalists to dig deeper into the issue of human trafficking to portray it more responsibly, sensitively and ethically. Only when these things happen will the counter-human trafficking community find the answers that best protect, support and empower all victims and survivors.


What do you think? Have images like this done more harm than good? Is the increase in public awareness and public outcry against human trafficking worth the misperceptions this image perpetuates?


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5 Responses to “Is the Media Helping or Harming Anti-Trafficking Efforts?”

  1. C – 3rd post | Taken from Home

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  2. Top Six Reasons Melania Trump Should Get Involved In Anti-Trafficking Campaigning — Tits and Sass

    […] of reliability of many trafficking claims, anti-trafficking stories are still often published with little criticism, dubious ethics, and fetishistic imagery. It’s a free pass for Melania and so many other would-be advocates who don’t know what […]

  3. Film Review: Sold – rex.hamaker

    […] The goal of the film is to raise awareness and money to fight trafficking. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably sufficiently aware that minors are commercially sexually exploited.  Instead of buying a ticket, donate directly to anti-trafficking organizations rather than support media that is often irresponsible with its representations of trafficking. […]

  4. Subir Roy

    While I understand your opinion about the picture being covered by media at the same time I believe that media has been playing a very important role in prioritising the issue among the policy makers. Due to continuous media coverage and advocacy now in India we have strong act in the indian penal code i.e. Section 370 which covers all kinds of slavery.

    As far as my experience is concerned when media make it to the front page policy makers listen.

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