Survivor-Centric Journalism: Redefining Narratives and Dismantling Human Trafficking Stereotypes

Now that the smoke has cleared on the backlash against the film “Sound of Freedom,” it is obvious that the whole discussion around human trafficking and sex work is being further stigmatized across the political spectrum. One cannot bring up the topic even in many professional circles without Sound of Freedom and its various scandals being invoked to shut the conversation down. Place the blame where it truly belongs: at the doorstep of a national news media that cowers in the face of human trafficking survivors and refuses to amplify their voices. This predicament existed long before the surge of recent scandals, and its grip has only tightened.

First, the whole approach of the media to trafficking issues needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from scratch. One author of this article is a journalist and mental health advocate. From mental health topics to human trafficking topics, the media has a severe problem with how trauma-safe it is willing to be. Survivors have explained terms like “sex slave” and news articles in which sex workers are seen as a nuisance in a neighborhood (without addressing root causes of unsafe street prostitution), are incredibly damaging. A basic understanding of mental health advocacy would lead one to recognize that this kind of rhetoric stigmatizes sex workers and trafficking survivors both, and has no place in popular media. Furthermore, left-leaning journalists nonchalantly brush aside the pervasive threat of trafficking as a mere figment of the right wing’s imagination, which does little to remedy the situation. This dismissive attitude was already a concern pre-dating the scandals surrounding “Sound of Freedom,” a film widely disapproved of within survivor circles. The space between outright neglect and sensationalism is vast, yet many journalists seem trapped in these polarized extremes, failing to navigate the nuanced terrain that lies in between.

Second, the media needs to relinquish its addiction to sensationalism without reservation. One of the authors of this article is a Survivor of trafficking, and has been immersed in the anti-trafficking cause since 2008.

Kristin passionately champions a move towards media coverage infused with compassion. She calls for a deliberate shift away from sensationalism, advocating for narratives that resonate with empathy and foster a deeper understanding of the complex realities surrounding trafficking.

In the shadows where silence is deafening, survivors of sex trafficking find themselves wrestling with the ghosts of a past that society often chooses to ignore. Survivor stories are not commodities for shock value; they are narratives of resilience, strength, and survival.

By fostering a more compassionate and survivor-centric approach, the media can play a crucial role in dismantling the systems that perpetuate human trafficking. It is time for the media to recognize its responsibility in shaping public perceptions and influencing policy.

Third, the media tends to uncritically relay information law enforcement gives them. As an example, if law enforcement says there is a prostitution bust in which several are arrested for prostitution and three for trafficking, this means the media has dramatically overlooked its responsibility to ask why these women are being arrested in the first place.

Additionally, the media does not really do much actual digging into the issue. So little reporting on the topic can be found that is neither dismissing the problem or sensationalism that the burden of educating the public lies on a handful of Op-Eds by advocates that appear periodically but not often enough to establish any sense of reality around the problem in the minds of news consumers.

It is imperative that we redirect the focus towards more accurate representations, emphasizing sectors where trafficking is prevalent, highlighting under-identified populations, and portraying survivors in a manner that empowers rather than victimizes.

Even the organizations claiming to be fighting against human trafficking need urgent cultural change. An essential consideration lies in the language employed when addressing human trafficking and its survivors. Terms such as “rescue” and “saved” can inadvertently demean survivors, undermining survivor agency and resilience. Also phrases like “voice for the voiceless,” or “helping/defending the defenseless,” minimizes survivor autonomy. Furthermore, it is crucial that the media, anti-trafficking organizations, survivor leaders, government entities and the general public distinguish between sex trafficking and consensual activities like sex work to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

In the aftermath of the thunderous rise and fall of “Sound of Freedom,” the menace of human trafficking looms ever present. We stand firm in our conviction that the media, entrusted with the well-being of its readers and their families, has woefully fallen short in fulfilling its duties.

The time for complacency is over. What we demand is not just reform but a seismic shift that echoes the urgency of this crisis.

Main Author: Kristin Vaughn, a resilient survivor of human trafficking, brings over two decades of dedicated experience to the anti-trafficking sector.

Supporting Author: Jay Heisler is a journalist published in Voice of America, CNBC and the Washington Examiner, and teaches part time at a university in Canada.