Five Reasons We Can't Afford to Let Sensationalism Hurt the Mission

by Derri Smith, Executive Director

Do a quick search for human trafficking images and you’ll quickly find dozens of dark photos with chained wrists, bodies in bottles and boxes or dog cages. Hands imploringly held out with the words “Help Me” imprinted.

Do a quick search for stats on human trafficking and you’ll quickly find yourself confused. How can five different states be the #1 (or #2 or #3) hub for trafficking? Just how many children ARE trafficked in the USA?

Stories abound of the most egregious and shocking kind.

These graphics, stats and stories are sensational. They get attention, burn images in our brains and send shivers up our spines. They are the means that brings in money. And we are tempted to justify this means by our nonprofit’s need for cash and public approval. Despite the dark power of sensationalized images, and despite how authoritative we might sound repeating without qualification the numbers of unclear origin, here are five reasons to take a higher road:

1.       To maintain credibility as a movement. All it takes are a few inflated or inaccurate statistics to negate so much that is true. It is so tempting to quote compelling statistics without verifying them from credible sources. Human trafficking is a hidden crime. Information is hard to gather and spotty at best. Credible research exists in only a few states, so how can regional or city-specific claims of “highest number of victims” or “most trafficking activity” be substantiated? Let’s remain credible and professional. Anything else casts all of us in a poor light.

2.       We affirm the victims of less sensational but equally scarring exploitation. Yes, we’ve worked with a few girls who were chained or locked up. But most of the survivors we know were lured by non-violent means (“I thought we were in love.”) and held by deceiving young, needy girls that remaining compliant to the trafficker really is in their best interest. When recovering survivors see sensational representations of trafficking (chains, bars and the like), they think and feel that their ordeal was not truly human trafficking. They keep believing what the trafficker fed them: that they are the problem, that they don’t really need help, and/or that they weren’t exploited, so “Maybe he really did love me.” When it comes to images and stories, let’s get real, for the survivor’s sake.

Does a statistic become truer if we repeat it…repeatedly? Like a digital version of the old game, “Telephone”, website after speaker after blog said Atlanta is the number one child sex trafficking hub in the nation. A little investigation and conversation with colleagues in Georgia revealed that this claim sprang from a study that listed available trafficking statistics among major cities…in alphabetical order. That is how a less-than-careful reader began the oft-repeated rumor that Atlanta is America’s #1 hub for human trafficking of minors!

3.       We hold off compassion fatigue. If sensation fuels support for a cause, then it takes ever more shocking stories, stats and images to sustain compassion. When we dwell on reality, supporters and partners become better educated and remain grounded in that reality.

4.       We don’t promote the very thing we should oppose. When we use images of sexual situations and girls in fishnet stockings or hot pants, we actually feed those given to objectification and voyeurism. I used a stock photo of a girl wearing fishnet stockings at TEDx Nashville to illustrate the stereotype. But I’ve yet to see my first pair of fishnets on a real victim. Jeans and a T-shirt are the norm.  Some images cross over into soft porn and can titillate sex addicts. These and other images actually feed the message that young girls are already bombarded with—that their job is to “look hot.” This message actually sets children up for exploitation.

5.       We respect survivors. These girls, boys, men and women are some of the strongest and most resilient people I’ve ever known. They have to be strong to have survived all they’ve been through! The insipid images of pitiful victims pleading for our help insult real survivors. Each survivor works hard on the road to recovery. We simply come alongside to support and provide options. Well-meaning taglines unintentionally disrespect survivors. We don’t, for example, need to be a “voice for the voiceless” so much as we need to help survivors find their own voice.

In our portrayal of survivors, let’s maintain credibility, affirm every victim’s ordeal, keep supporters grounded in reality, starve exploitation and heap respect upon survivors. In every representation of human trafficking, make it clear that victims really are the victims, no matter whether the chains were emotional or physical. These survivors, every one, are champions.