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date: 18 November 2017

Human Trafficking and the Media in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Although the exploitation of people for profit is not a new phenomenon, in the late 1990s and early 2000s international leaders, advocates, and the public became increasingly concerned about the risks of exploitation inherent in labor migration and commercial sex work. In 2000, the U.S. government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which defined a new crime of human trafficking and directed law enforcement agencies to begin identifying and responding to this form of victimization. Following passage of the TVPA, U.S. media interest in human trafficking as a crime increased steadily, though the framing of the problem, its causes, and its solutions has changed over time. Media coverage of human trafficking spiked around 2005 and has risen steadily since that time. Human trafficking has become a “hot topic”—the subject of investigative journalism and a sexy plot line for films and television shows. Yet, the media often misrepresent human trafficking or focus exclusively on certain aspects of the problem. Research on human trafficking frames in print media revealed that portrayals of human trafficking were for the most part oversimplified and inaccurate in terms of human trafficking being portrayed as innocent white female victims needing to be rescued from nefarious traffickers. Depictions of human trafficking in movies, documentaries, and television episodes in the United States have followed a rescue narrative, where innocent victims are saved from harmful predators. Additionally, traffickers are commonly portrayed in the media as part of larger organized crime rings, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Incorrect framing of human trafficking in the popular media may lead policymakers and legislators to adopt less helpful antitrafficking responses, particularly responses focused on criminal justice system solutions.

Keywords: human trafficking, sex trafficking, gender, race, representation, documentaries, movies, television

Background on Antitrafficking Efforts in the United States

The exploitation of people for profit is not a new phenomenon, but the realities of modern life, including globalization and extreme poverty, exacerbate conditions that give rise to victimization. In response to growing international and domestic concerns about the trafficking of persons for sex and labor, the U.S. federal government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) in 2000. The TVPA defined severe forms of trafficking as:

  1. a) The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion. or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and

  2. b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Despite vigorous debate about how the problem of human trafficking would be defined in federal law (see Stolz, 2007), the final legislation clarified that force, fraud, and coercion were necessary components of human trafficking. Prostitution was included in the law to describe sex trafficking of adults not induced by force, fraud, or coercion, but the TVPA did not consider this form of sex trafficking to be a “severe form” of trafficking (the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-386)). Only severe forms of trafficking could be prosecuted and used as the operative definition for law enforcement, public policy decisions, and actions in response to trafficking. Following passage of federal law, all fifty states have criminalized some form of human trafficking (Bouche, Farrell, & Wittmer, 2016).

Despite increased public awareness of human trafficking and the response of federal and state government, there is little consensus about the true magnitude of human trafficking in the United States. Human trafficking is widely accepted to be underidentified and underreported by officials such as the police. To overcome this challenge, different estimates of the extent of human trafficking victimization have been calculated. For example, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 1.5 million victims of forced labor and human trafficking are in the United States, Canada, and western Europe (ILO, 2012). These estimates vary widely, are calculated from different data sources, and are based on questionable methodologies (Gozdziak & Collette, 2005; Tyldum, 2010).

Media Coverage of Human Trafficking

The U.S. media began addressing the problem of human trafficking following congressional hearings that led to passage of the TVPA in 2000. Coverage of human trafficking in print media has grown steadily since 2000 (Farrell & Fahy, 2009). For instance, in 2004 The New York Times magazine featured an article by Peter Landesman (2004) titled “Girls Next Door,” which provided graphic depictions of the horrors of sex trafficking in the United States.

In addition to becoming a popular and sensational topic in mass news media, human trafficking also became a popular topic in films and television. For example, in the film Taken (2009), a character played by Liam Neeson singlehandedly combated an international organized crime network to rescue his daughter from the horrors of sex trafficking. This action-packed crime movie did extremely well in the box office, and two sequels followed the initial release (IMDb, n.d.) of this very popular movie. This was not the first and would not be the last time a film about human trafficking caused a public reaction. For example, in 2001, a documentary was released to expose the slave labor practices in the cocoa farms of the Ivory Coast. The documentary chronicled the horrific conditions of African workers who were forced to work in cocoa farms. The film included graphic images of the physical damage trafficking had inflicted on their bodies (Bales & Soodalter, 2009). The power of those images outraged viewers and led to boycotts, calls for action, and almost the complete halt of the sale of chocolate from the Ivory Coast (Bales & Soodalter, 2009).

Human trafficking has become an interesting topic for entertainment media. A-list celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, and Maria Sorvino have become “spokespersons” for human trafficking (Haynes, 2014). Similarly, popular crime dramas like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit have dedicated episodes to the subject, and prime-time cable news channels and talk shows such as CNN have dedicated entire segments to the issue (Gulati, 2011; Szorenyi & Eate, 2014).

Media Framing of Human Trafficking

The proliferation of representations or depictions of crime by the mass media has allowed information to be more accessible to the public. These representations, often called frames, shape how the public understands social problem (Altheide, 1997). Three main types of frames serve to encourage specific interpretations to an issue. Diagnostic frames define the problem; prognostic frames propose solutions to the problem based on the diagnostic frame; and motivational frames encourage collective action to the problem by instilling a sense of urgency or moral outrage (Snow & Benford, 1988; Benford & Snow, 2000; Entman, 1993). Frames are most successful in defining problems, proposing solutions, and motivating action when they resonate with the current social climate, when they reinforce cultural stereotypes and beliefs, and when they are simplistic and easy to understand (Snow & Benford, 1988). This in turn establishes how the public as well as policymakers understand and interpret the issue (Altheide, 1997; Entman, 1993; Scheufele, 2000).

Diagnostic Frames: Types of Trafficking

The media commonly simplify the problem of human trafficking by conflating sex trafficking with prostitution (Chuang, 2014; Jahic & Finckenauer, 2005; Stolz, 2007). Arguably, the conflation of human trafficking with sex trafficking in the congressional debates has led to sex trafficking being featured more frequently in the media while labor trafficking is rarely featured at all. Farrell and Fahy (2009) note that during each stage of the development of human trafficking as a social problem, there were more sex trafficking stories in the print media than labor trafficking stories. Wilson and O’Brien (2016), in their analysis of the Trafficking Incidents Reports from 2001 to 2012, also conclude that more sex trafficking cases were reported than every other form of trafficking such as domestic labor, agricultural labor, child begging, and child soldiers. Content analyses of human trafficking in the United States and international media suggest that representations have focused dominantly on sex trafficking, even when broader terms such as human trafficking are invoked (Denton, 2010; Kinney, 2015; Sobel, 2014; Szorenyi & Eate, 2014).

The overrepresentation of sex trafficking in the media is an example of the media imitating the dominant policy debates about the status of prostitution as it relates to the TVPA. Comparative studies of media coverage in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have documented similar patterns of representation of the problem which mirrors dominant policy responses focused on combating sex trafficking (Gulati, 2010). In addition to following the dominant policy, sex trafficking may be dominant in media representation because sex trafficking victims tend to be minors and women, which matches American perceptions of victimization. Furthermore, sex trafficking may be easier to cover in a news story because it provides a clear and simple violation of the law, whereas labor trafficking cases are more complex and are often debated as civil issues and not law enforcement issues. Whatever the specific cause of media bias, labor trafficking cases have remained largely invisible to the public because of underrepresentation in the media.

Type of Problem

The majority of research on human trafficking in the media suggests that human trafficking has been framed largely as a crime issue. Even though human trafficking was first introduced to the United States as a human rights issue, passage of the TVPA helped usher in the criminal justice frames in the media (Farrell & Fahy, 2009). Research on dominant human trafficking themes in American print media articles revealed that human trafficking continues to be represented more as a crime issue than as a human rights, policy, public health, or activist awareness issue (Charnysh, Lloyd, & Simmons, 2015; Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Gulati, 2011; Johnston, Friedman, & Shafer, 2014; Johnston, Friedman, & Sobel, 2015). Johnston, Friedman, and Shafer’s (2014) analysis of sex trafficking in particular suggests that only approximately 30 percent of the print media articles and broadcasts in their sample attempted to tie sex trafficking to larger societal problems other than crime. Crime frames are even dominant among international laws and international media outlets (Gallagher, 2010; Gulati, 2011; Sobel, 2014).

Framing social issues as a criminal issue is popular among politicians who govern through crime (Simon, 2006). Charynsh, Lloyd, and Simmons (2015) also note that human trafficking crime frames in particular have elicited more support from the international community than any other frames. By reducing complex social problems to crimes, simple and easy solutions can be proposed (Chambliss, 1964; Potter & Kappeler, 1998; Rafter, 1990). Human trafficking involves immigration and migration concerns, economic inequality concerns, and human rights and gender rights violations to a criminal activity, but it is framed in the media as simply a crime or a transnational security threat (Farrell & Fahy, 2009). Crime framing places a large amount of blame on deviant individuals instead of structural problems such as globalization, migration conditions, the status of women, and poverty (Barnett, 2015; Chuang, 2014). These issues are much more complex and harder to address, making the discussion of trafficking within these frames less popular and less likely to resonate with the public compared to the simpler crime theme.

Causes of the problem

As mentioned previously, framing human trafficking as a crime issue sets the stage for explaining human trafficking as the result of nefarious predators instead of a by-product of larger societal issues that are harder to explain and address. Gulati’s (2011) previous content analyses of print media articles about human trafficking revealed the dominance of the crime frame in that the most cited cause of human trafficking in his sample was criminal activity. For further emphasis, criminal activity was cited as a cause twice as much as other leading causes such as poverty, war, corruption, and bad policy (Gulati, 2011).

Although some criminal activity is the cause of human trafficking, it is hardly the sole cause of victimization in the United States and the rest of the world. For instance, many victims of human trafficking in the United States are vulnerable or desperate and therefore relatively easy to victimize (Shelly, 2010). The vulnerable in the United States and other nations include those in extreme poverty, the homeless, runaway youth, the mentally ill, immigrant populations, undocumented workers, and people of minority and low socioeconomic status (Bales, 2000; Berman, 2003; Jones et al., 2007; Kinney, 2015).

Even though crime was cited as a leading cause in other early analyses, it was mentioned in only about one-third of the articles (Gulati, 2011; Sobel, 2014). Interestingly, most articles did not cite a cause at all. Johnston, Friedman, and Sobel’s (2015) analysis revealed that the articles in their sample that defined human trafficking as a crime issue were far less likely to mention causes. In contrast, articles that used a human rights frame were significantly more likely to cite root causes of the problem such as poverty, sexual exploitation, and globalization (Johnston, Friedman, & Shafer, 2014; Johnston, Freidman, & Sobel, 2015). Poverty was cited as the main cause of human trafficking only in Sobel’s (2014) analysis; however, Sobel concluded that overall crime frames were still more popular.

Prognostic Frames: Solutions to the Problem

Because the media cite crime as the leading cause of human trafficking, research on human trafficking in the media also reveals that law enforcement and crime control solutions were cited twice as much as the other leading solutions such as political reform or greater international cooperation (Gulati, 2011). Similar to causes, solutions to human trafficking in media articles and broadcast media also depended on type of problem (Johnston, Friedman, & Shafer, 2012; Johnston, Friedman, & Sobel, 2014). Media stories that framed human trafficking as a crime problem were significantly less likely to propose any remedy, while media stories that framed human trafficking as a policy problem or a human rights problem were more likely to site remedies such as establishing better legislation to address the problem and increasing awareness of sex trafficking (Johnston, Friedman, & Shafer, 2012; Johnston, Friedman, & Sobel, 2015).

As discussed earlier, many victims of human trafficking are victimized because they are vulnerable. Focusing on solutions that emphasize crime control does not address the need for victim services for human trafficking victims such as shelter, health care, and trauma services. Crime control solutions also do not address the need for better policy changes that can help hinder human trafficking such as a policy change of the work visas that are conducive to labor trafficking. However, because of the United States’ history of support for punitive criminal justice solutions and the relative ease of criminalization, crime control solutions are more present in the media.

Motivational Frames: Constructing the “Ideal” Victim

In terms of the representation of victims of human trafficking in the media, Wilson and O’Brien (2016) suggest that human trafficking victims are framed as the ideal victim according to Christie’s (1986) ideal victim construction. By establishing an ideal victim, the media can create a victim that promotes sympathy and collective action from the general public (Christie, 1986). Depicting victims as innocent victims of kidnapping is one mechanism for constructing an ideal victim. For instance, Szorenyi and Eate’s (2014) analysis of the movies Trade and Taken, points out that the main characters in both movies were physically kidnapped into sex trafficking by strangers and that their innocence status was indicated by their virginity. Kinney (2015) also notes that in Taken and Trade all the women in the film who were introduced as “sexually pure” before they were abducted survived through the course of the movie, whereas all the sexually experienced women died. Kinney (2015) refers to these images and the importance of the theme of innocence in the movies as establishing a hierarchy of victims, where only the pure, innocent, and often the white female victims were the focus of rescue.

The overrepresentation of simpler forms of victimization such as kidnapping and deception is problematic because these representations completely ignore the coercive form of victimization that many victims undergo. For instance, many labor trafficking and sex trafficking victims are held by psychological forms of coercion such as being threatened with deportation or with violence toward their family members, and being held by debt bondage (Bales & Soodalter, 2009). The kidnapping narrative also ignores domestic sex trafficking victims who are psychologically attached to their exploiters as well as foreign-born sex trafficking victims who voluntarily migrate for sex work and are victimized upon arrival (Weitzer, 2007). More complex forms of victimization are not presented in the media because they involve attaching criminal behavior to the victim. Once criminal behavior is attached to the victim, the victim is no longer the “ideal victim” and therefore can no longer be given sympathy.

Unfortunately, many traits of the “ideal” victim are not present in most trafficking victims. Many labor trafficking and sex trafficking victims help facilitate the beginning of their illegal or legal movement into the United States (Shelley, 2010). Also, sex trafficking victims participate (even if unwillingly) in prostitution, running away, and drug usage (Bales & Soodalter, 2009; Lloyd, 2011). Because the American public has little sympathy for illegal immigrants or individuals involved in prostitution, articles such as Landesman’s (2004) “The Girl Next Door,” which focused heavily on innocent victims who suffered physical victimizations continue to proliferate because they are the types of victims who serve as better motivational frames.

Victim Characteristics

Demographic characteristics of victims such as age, gender, and race also play a huge role in constructing America’s “ideal” victim. For instance, children and women are the most commonly represented victims in print media articles (Denton, 2010; Johnston, Friedman, & Sobel, 2015). Barnett (2015) also noticed this trend in her analysis of sex trafficking in magazines articles in that her sample contained no stories of male sex trafficking victims. Children and women are ideal victims because labels such as vulnerable, weak, blameless, and passive characteristics can easily be attached to them (Christie, 1986). At the same time, it is easy to attach blame to adult victims and male victims of human trafficking. The strong representation of women as victims of human trafficking also corresponds to the overrepresentation of sex trafficking and the underrepresentation of labor trafficking in the media.

Media accounts have not only relied heavily on children and women as victims, but they have also focused more specifically on white female victims. As mentioned previously, when human trafficking was first being established as an issue, the antiprostitution group used young white eastern European women as their portrait of a victim because this frame adhered to the cultural myths of American society (Jahic & Finckenauer, 2005). Because the frame was culturally resonant, news media, movies, and television shows continued to mimic the kidnap narrative of young innocent white female victims. Kinney (2015) points out this image in the movies Taken, Trade, and the Human Trafficking miniseries. The Human Trafficking miniseries in particular featured predominantly white eastern European victims who were being transferred into the United States. Although the miniseries also took place in Southeast Asia, it focused primarily on the experience of a young white American girl who was forcefully kidnapped into sex trafficking during broad daylight while in Southeast Asia.

White female victims are overrepresented as victims in the media because they fit the society’s definition of an innocent and pure person. White female victims also match the stereotype of victim status in American television. For instance, Britto and Dabney’s (2010) analysis of political talk shows revealed that white females were overrepresented as victims of crime compared to men and minorities. Berman (2003) argues that the increased concern for the problem of human trafficking was due to this representation of white women as the primary targets, even though minority women were victimized in the United States long before the call for antitrafficking legislation. Valenti explains in her book The Purity Myth (2009), that in American culture, the terms “pure” and “innocent” are only applied to white women. Therefore, they are the only victims worthy of sympathy or protection. In contrast, minorities are guilty purely because of their minority or immigrant status (Valenti, 2010). But the dominant images white women victims are incorrect because most trafficking victims are not white. The same is true for both domestic and foreign victims in America. Shelley (2010) notes that human trafficking in America largely resembles the exploitation of the vulnerable populations in the nation, that is, the lower class, minorities, the LGBTQ population, and immigrants. However, these populations have historically not been represented as victims in American media. Britto and Dabney (2010) also concluded from their analysis that on the occasion minorities were presented as victims in political talk shows, the host used victim blaming language to describe the circumstance of their victimization.

Foreign Versus Domestic Victims

Another inaccuracy that scholars also note about the coverage of human trafficking is the preference for foreign victims over domestic victims (Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Hughes, 2007; Johnston et al., 2012). Lloyd (2011), author of Girls Like Us and creator of the program Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), shared the same sentiment in her assessment that most Americans think of sex trafficking as something that happens only to foreign victims. In her book, she explains that Americans generally associate domestic sex trafficking in the United States with “juvenile prostitutes” who choose to be “in the life.” Denying this population victim status is arguably associated with the image of the ideal victim because the young women that Rachel Lloyd serves through her program GEMS are composed of a significant number of black and Latina girls (Lloyd, 2011). Not only are they viewed as guilty by their minority status, but also because their victimizations do not always fit the kidnapping or the “being chained to a bed” narrative established by the media (Haynes, 2006).

Offenders’ Characteristics

Human trafficking offenders are primarily depicted as males who are more than likely to be from ethnic organized crime groups and more likely to exhibit extreme violence and debasement to their victims. Additionally, when victims are depicted as being kidnapped, that portrayal hints that the offender was a stranger to the victim. Participating in behaviors such as torture and rape also helps establish the offender as evil. As for customers, Kinney (2015), Weitzer (2007), and Chuang (2010) point out that customers are usually framed as immoral, sex-crazed men, or even sexual predators. Customers have also ranged from very rich ethnic buyers, as demonstrated by Taken, or as deviant white upper-middle-class men. Weitzer (2007) mentions that constructing traffickers and customers as brutal criminals or deviants establishes offenders of trafficking as “folk devils.” Folk devils are useful as frames of criminals because they allow for the blame to be placed on individuals rather than societal constructions of race, the status of women, and poverty (Chuang, 2010).

In reality, a large percentage of victims are exploited by their family members, acquaintances, and friends. Similar to the crime of sexual assault, victims of human trafficking are viewed as more credible and sympathetic if strangers victimize them. In the case of human trafficking in particular, a personal connection between the victim and offender attaches some criminality to the victim, making the victim a “bad victim.”

Impacts of Human Trafficking Frames

Research on media framing suggests that these images of human trafficking in the media will create expectations of what trafficking is and how it should be handled by the criminal justice system (Kinney, 2015). The rescue narrative that dominates media representation of sex trafficking is dangerous because human trafficking victims have more complex experiences that do not fit with the ideal victim seeking rescue from police or other officials (Baker, 2014). As the literature and critics reveal, these perceptions are not based on reality, but rather are supported by concepts that the general public has historically accepted such as white female victimization. This becomes problematic when government actors such as police and political figures use these distorted images as their reference to make decisions about arrests and victim services. For instance, research on victim identification suggests that when judges, prosecutors, and police officers are faced with a “bad victim” who does not resemble the constructed ideal victim of human trafficking, they are reluctant to treat these individuals as victims at all (Farrell, McDevitt, & Fahy, 2010; Farrell, Owens, & McDevitt 2014).

Research conducted on public opinions about human trafficking also revealed that the American public has some false ideas about human trafficking. The research revealed that the majority of the public believes that human trafficking victims are always female, that human trafficking victims are mostly illegal immigrants, that human trafficking involves the use or threat of physical force, and that human trafficking involves movement across borders (Bouche, Farrell, & Wittmer, 2016). Because trafficking is so heavily associated with illegal immigration, the public as well as law enforcement officers also subscribed to the belief that human trafficking was not an issue in their neighborhoods (Bouche, Farrell, & Wittmer, 2016; Farrell, Pfeffer, & Bright, 2015).

The literature on human trafficking frames in the media has provided a clear understanding of the dominant diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational frames presented in print media, movies, and other forms of popular media. Providing easy and accessible interpretations to the public makes the media one of the most powerful influences on public opinion about social issues such as human trafficking. For instance, Bouche, Farrell, and Wittmer’s (2016) research on public opinion about human trafficking revealed that most Americans learned about human trafficking from new reports, television, and movies. The media also influence the decisions and actions of government actors. For example, in an analysis of law enforcement perceptions of human trafficking, police officers in the sample also admitted that their knowledge of human trafficking derived mainly from what they were exposed to in the media and in fictional films such as Taken (Farrell, Pfeffer, & Bright, 2015; Wilson, Walsh, & Kleuber, 2006).

Given that both government actors and the general public report that their knowledge of human trafficking comes from news reports, movies and films, a content analysis on a larger sample of documentaries, films, and television episodes would be beneficial to both the understanding of how human trafficking is framed in visual media and the understanding of public opinion on human trafficking.

The dominant diagnostic, prognostic, and motivational frames of human trafficking in American news reports, movies, television episodes, and documentaries reflect the rescue narrative in which innocent victims, primarily young women and children, are forced into commercial sex against their will. Understanding the dominant media frames is important to understanding not only how government actors react to the problem, but also the public. It is the public who decides what issues are important to their elected officials. Just like police officers, the public is also in a position to recognize situations of human trafficking in their everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the public has been subject to incorrect images of human trafficking through news accounts and popular media. This does not mean that the media and news reports cannot be important tools in developing effective antitrafficking responses. As Rafter (2000) notes, crime visual media does not always reflect the dominant narrative of crime, and it even has the powerful ability to challenge cultural stereotypes. If policymakers and advocates want to reconstruct the framing of human trafficking, it is necessary to utilize popular media to depict the complexities of human trafficking problems, with different victims. A wider array of storylines fosters discussion of solutions that extend beyond the criminal justice system.

Literature Review

The U.S. print news media, movies, television shows, and documentaries increasingly cover issues related to human trafficking, especially sex trafficking. Media accounts reproduce the dominant framing of human trafficking problems by the government and antitrafficking activists in the United States as a crime and national security threat (Farrell & Fahy, 2009). Researchers who have examined media representations of human trafficking suggest that the problems and its victims are oversimplified, and are particularly reliant on a rescue narrative (Barnett, 2015; Charynsh, Lloyd, & Simmons, 2015; Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Gulati, 2011; Johnston, Friedman, & Shafer, 2014; Johnston, Friedman, & Sobel, 2014; Kinney, 2015; Szoerenyi & Eate, 2014). For instance, news accounts of human trafficking commonly depict the crimes as being perpetrated against only foreign victims in the United States when in fact human trafficking is also perpetrated against U.S. citizens (Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Lloyd, 2011). Additionally, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are largely absent from news accounts about the problem (Johnston et al., 2015). Similarly, exploitation related to nonsexual work, commonly defined as labor trafficking, is virtually nonexistent in popular media representations of human trafficking. Instead, human trafficking is overwhelmingly presented as synonymous with sex trafficking.

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