Monday, May 11, 2009

Human Trafficking and Media: Blessing or Curse

This post comes from Amanda Kloer, the author of the End Human Trafficking blog on We thank Ms. Kloer for her contribution to HTP and the counter-trafficking movement. Please visit her site and look for more cross-posting to come!

Human Trafficking and Media: Blessing or Curse

I believe that the world’s stereotypes emanate from one source: Lifetime television. Over the years, Lifetime has taught me that cancer mostly happens to young, pretty, white women; that eating disorders can be cured by a good, long cry; and that Tori Spelling can survive anything. Lifetime has taken on a lot of serious issues, but many of their made-for-tv productions are so fraught with sensationalism and stereotypes, they can do more harm than good. And Human Trafficking is no exception.

In 2005, Lifetime produced a film called
Human Trafficking, which starred Mira Sorvino and Donald Sutherland. It was one of the first times that any form of mainstream media had done such an extensive feature on the issue. The story was fictional, about a female Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent (Sorvino), who eventually goes undercover in a ring of human traffickers. The narrative hits a few accurate details, but sensationalizes, simplifies, and ignores others. It stereotypes traffickers, victims, and law enforcement agents, sometimes with gross inaccuracy.

And yet in some ways, Human Trafficking may have been what took the abolitionist movement from the niche to the mainstream, or at least made it more visible. I worked for an anti-trafficking NGO when Human Trafficking first aired on Lifetime, and fielded at least ten phone calls the following day. People asked “Does this really happen?”, “Does this really happen in America?”, “What can I do?”. Some of them donated money. Some of them asked for a volunteer application form. What I saw as frustrating inaccuracies, they saw as a call to action against their first taste of injustice.

The presence of human trafficking in the mainstream media is both a blessing and a curse. Media attention raises awareness, which raises funds and public demand for better legislation and enforcement, which ultimately can help tackle this huge issue. But the temptation to oversimplify it, to make it “sexier”, to sensationalize a story which practically begs to be sensationalized is overwhelming.

blog about human trafficking, and have often felt that pull to boil trafficking down to a series of words: child, sex slave, chained, forced, kidnapped, virginity, corruption, conspiracy. They are words that leap at your eyeballs and wiggle into your memory. But breaking human trafficking down to mere words loses the truth: that slavery is a complex and growing institution that we support and that we allow to flourish. We worship the pimps. We buy the iPods. We think we can end human trafficking with a good long cry. We can’t.

Like trafficking itself, mainstream media attention for the issue is complicated. Must we take the bad with the good? Or can we continue to push for real depth and accuracy, instead of sensationalism or simplification? We can, but it might take a lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:58 PM

    While I do believe that there are many cons to sensationalizing human trafficking, I think anything which brings this issue to people's attention is not only good, but necessary right now. Actually, the reason I was first turned on to the issue of human trafficking was because I saw the movie "Taken". Now, while I've since learned so much more about the issue, and can look deeper than where the movie pushed me to see, I'm so glad I was exposed to the issue, because it's what I want to spend my time fighting.