How does the media talk about human trafficking?

How does the media talk about human trafficking?

Wed, 18/12/2019 - 13:28


Socal journalism. Flawed terminology, inaccurate figures, unverified concepts: journalism faces many challenges when it comes to reporting human trafficking and other human rights violations.

The way the media covers delicate topics such as human and social rights is an issue that worries organisations working in this sphere. There’s a dilemma which revolves around the need to be in the news to raise awareness and put the spotlight on issues so that authorities and society act, compared to the need for reliable and true non-sensationalist information. To this end, SICAR cat, which specialises in support for victims of human trafficking, organised a meeting with journalists, going beyond an explanation and clarification of the basic concepts and offering a series of accounts of the phenomenon of trafficking, such as terminology, images, figures and other content which can actually be applied to other social and human rights topics.


To start with, notes Rosa Cendón, coordinator of institutional relations and influence with SICAR cat, “the term tràfic d’éssers humans [human trafficking, abbreviated as TEH], in Catalan, is often confused with contraban. The first has the aim of sexual or labour exploitation, forced criminal activity, the extraction of organs, forced marriages and more. The second refers to the action of facilitating the illegal entry of people using routes not enabled for it”.

“Yet the problem of terminology doesn’t stop there: in Spanish, TEH is called trata de seres humanos and human trafficking is called contraban. While in English, the two concepts are called trafficking and smuggling. In short, just untangling all that requires a big effort”.

That’s without mentioning expressions that certain media channels use by default, without focusing on what they really mean, such as tràfic de blanques (trata de blancas in Spanish, or white woman trafficking). This obviously refers to a very old phenomenon from when European women were kidnapped to be taken to other places in the south, a phenomenon which now more than ever is the other way around. Many people trafficked today are black, and yet it’s a term which is often used.

Caution with figures

Another challenge journalists face when it comes to informing people about TEH is the variation in numbers, particularly when politics needs to profit from certain action. Figures can be manipulated or explained to make trafficking seem a certain volume or another. Cendón gives the example of political declarations saying that all women prostitutes are victims of trafficking, and so the volume is very high. In contrast, others only consider victims of trafficking to be people who have been coerced through violence.

Official figures are not precise due to the difficulty of the situation of victims: many are not detected, some denounce the situation and others don’t. The criteria used by different countries would also need unifying and at present that’s not the case.

“We tend to think that exploitation takes just one form, sexual, overlooking labour exploitation, forced marriages and organ trafficking”

Established myths and concepts

Laia Virgili, head of communication for SICAR cat, explains that another challenge is avoiding some of the deeply rooted myths when talking about human trafficking, such as how victims are always women and children, foreigners in irregular situations or with few educational qualifications and so forth.

Virgili also warns that we tend to think that exploitation takes just one form, sexual, overlooking labour exploitation, forced marriages and organ trafficking etc. All these involve violence and the violation of human rights.

Regarding concepts which tend to get confused with others when writing or talking about trafficking, Virgili makes the distinction between potential victim, detected victim and identified victim, as well as the transition from victim to survivor. In this respect, the use of the term survivor is the way of avoiding constantly describing people who have suffered this or other types of violence in terms of a negative and disempowering situation.

As journalists we must seek narratives beyond the ‘ideal victim’

Decalogue for reporting

In an effort to provide journalists with tools for reporting events in this field or researching human trafficking, the SICAR cat team proposes a decalogue where we could highlight the following: consult expert sources (people, entities and administrations), use images properly, avoid sensationalism and look for narratives beyond the ideal victim (for instance, accounts from potential victims, which can be just as informative as those of victims who have suffered violence), and so on. The entity has also set up a Twitter profile (@SicarCatPress) with the intention of offering tools for journalists. The account provides information, as well as calling media channels to account when they consider they are not being careful enough in their communication.

Human trafficking is probably one of the most complex topics for the media to cover and so the reflections and proposals from the meeting organised by could be extended to the majority of social and human rights topics: the need for expert sources and proper care with terminology and images.