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The media is the window for the public to many issues that we may not normally encounter, and has the ability to shape our understanding of critical topics such as human trafficking. To avoid sensationalism or bias, journalism on such issues must be balanced and well-executed. However, many modern news outlets prioritize sensationalism over fact-based coverage of trafficking.

Sex trafficking stories dealing with the victimization of women and girls disproportionately dominate news outlets and often use stylized images of women and girls in bondage as illustrations for stories. This narrative perpetuates stereotypes and misconceptions, especially the one that trafficking always involves the use of physical force or restraint. This is only likely to do more to empower traffickers than to protect would-be victims of this horrible crime.

Those concerned with human trafficking must understand the various intersecting conditions that can lead to this crime. Poverty, domestic turbulence, political unrest, natural disasters and more can all increase the likelihood of trafficking. However, very often stories are reduced to the attribution of modern slavery to a single, underlying cause. This results in failure to represent the ground realities of trafficking and the public’s awareness of its true nature.

Exploitation can assume many forms, not just the one of forcing victims into prostitution. Most victims in the U.S. are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children. Other vulnerable segments include migrant laborers, undocumented workers, young children in the welfare system or even those who travel unaccompanied.

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As with all reporting, it is essential to prioritize the privacy and safety of subjects involved. Victims of trafficking in particular remain vulnerable even after being freed from direct oppression. Discretion should always be exercised in regard to personal information about victims. Their anonymity should be prioritized as their reintegration into society can be difficult and the possibility of re-victimization is ever present.

A major challenge in the coverage of trafficking stories is a lack of corroboration. Many cases go undocumented for this reason. By showing the undeniable connection between our daily lives and modern day slavery, media can not only hold the perpetrators accountable, but also expose the role that society, consumers and governments play unknowingly in perpetuating the atrocity.

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The best hope we have of slowing this criminal enterprise is to do a better job of making people less vulnerable to traffickers.

Done well, journalism can help create an informed society, promote awareness and transparency and catalyze social pressure. All these are necessary objectives to aspire for when covering the issue of human trafficking. Only through heightened exposure in the media can modern slavery receive the visibility and traction it deserves in public discourse.

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