Investigative reporters use a wide variety of skills to cover human trafficking.
Sensitive interviewing of victims emerges as vital; a number of useful guides exist on interviewing vulnerable subjects. Meanwhile, getting a handle on sometimes controversial data in this area can be challenging. Collaboration has been critical in doing some stories, which span multiple countries, as some reporters explain post publication.
These and other topics are discussed below.
Special Help Sites
Only a few organizations aim specifically to help journalists work on this issue.
Reporting on forced labour and fair recruitment is a toolkit prepared in 2020 by the International Labor Organization. For multiple translations of the toolkit, and updates, look here. Also see a related journalism curriculum. Also read an interview with the two authors, Charles Autheman and Kevin Burden.
Media and Trafficking in Human Beings Guidelines authored by the Ethical Journalism Network begins, “The human trafficking story is one of the most challenging, complex and ethically testing assignments for journalists and editors.” The project was funded by the European Union and implemented by an international consortium led by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD).
The 2017 report defines the basics of trafficking, addresses newsroom strategy and discusses journalistic ethics. A “Starting Questions” section cautions journalists to “avoid the traps” of misinformation, false news from social networks and propaganda from vested interests.
Ethics and Journalism: Reporting Human Trafficking, a 2022 webinar, was sponsored by Journalismfund.eu, which also provides grants for reporting on forced labor.
Repórter Brasil maintains a “Journalists Guide” providing key information for coverage of slave labor in Brazil, but it also has wider applicability. Repórter Brasil was founded in 2001 by journalists, social scientists and educators with the aim of encouraging reflection and action on the violation of the fundamental rights of peoples and workers in Brazil.
Another resource is The Irina Project, a website based at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. More on this in the chapter below on assessment of the media’s handling of human trafficking.
How the media reports on human trafficking is just as important as what is being reported, and the overall impact of these stories is reflected in the way the public, politicians, law enforcement and even other media outlets understand the issue. In recent years, a number of reports about human trafficking have included misinformation and outdated statistics, blamed or exploited survivors and conflated terminology.
Instead of shining a brighter light on this problem, such reports add confusion to a crime that is already underreported and often misunderstood by the public. As the issue of human trafficking continues to capture the public consciousness, members of the media have a responsibility to report thoroughly and responsibly, and to protect those who have been exploited.
Reporting on Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Immigrants was created by 90 Days 90 Voices, to provide “guidelines to ethical immigration reporting.” The US group “tells the stories of those seeking a home in the United States during an age of unrest through personal narratives, audio, photography, comics, and live journalism events.” The guide says in part:
Above all, we call on ourselves and other journalists to avoid “the second wound” — the hurtful impact that thoughtless, inaccurate and careless reporting can have on vulnerable immigrants often fleeing war, instability and tragedy.
Wahyu Dhyatmika, Indonesia, a managing editor at Tempo Newsroom, described the origins of an investigation in a IJAsia18 talk titled Exposing Modern Slavery in Asia.
At GIJC17, a tipsheet on human trafficking resources was presented by Tim Sandler, Co-Principal and Director of Investigations at Transparentem, a non-profit unit that uses investigative reporting and forensic methods to illuminate supply chains and spur eradication of human and environmental abuses.
Reporting on Slavery: Tips from the Pros, describes presentations made at GIJC17 by Sandler, AP reporter Martha Mendoza, longform freelance reporter Malia Politzer and International Center for Development Reporting editor Emmanuel Mayah.
How They Did It: Investigating Trafficked Guatemalan Teens in the US describes the process of creating the documentary “Trafficked in America.”
It’s important to understand definitions in this area.
The many categories include: debt bondage, contract slavery, sex trafficking, forced or servile marriage, domestic servitude, child labor and child soldiers. Significant distinctions, and ongoing debates, exist. For example, about distinguishing human smuggling from human trafficking and prostitution from sex trafficking.
See a section on definitions by The Irina Project that includes suggestions on word use, such as not using “child prostitutes.”
Migrant smuggling and human trafficking from Libya to Europe: What does the media say? This 2019 report published by Enact was written by Ciara Aucoin and Jihane Ben Yahia. “This study analyzed the ways in which a sample of English-language news media covered the topics of migrant smuggling and human trafficking from Libya, and the frequency of words used to denote slavery, abuse and financial transactions.”
First-Person Narratives Done Right
Quality interviewing of trafficking victims is critical to covering this topic and presents special challenges.
“Any approach to the victim should be a gradual and non-threatening process,” begins a US Justice Department guide for law enforcers, which also applies to reporters.
“It is critical to keep in mind that a victim’s reality is your reality when preparing for and conducting investigative interviews with potential trafficking victims,” according to the guide, which also has links to other resources.
A guide from the NGO Project Reach describes “what you might see” and tips, such as: “Be aware that changes in memory do not necessarily indicate falsehood or storytelling, but may be evidence of a trauma response.”
- The person you are interviewing makes the rules.
- Be transparent and deliberate as a reporter.
- Remember that this is a person, not a representative of a victim class.
- Your purpose is to seek the truth and to tell it to the public.
- Above all else, do no harm.
Dang, a survivor of child abuse, incest, and domestic sex trafficking in the United States, also wrote a moving introduction to a 2013 report, “Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives,” in which she lays out “a working set of guiding principles for the anti-trafficking movement,” beginning with “rehumanize survivors.”
- put the survivor’s wellbeing first,
- write from a place of care, and
- listen to survivors.
One survivor of child sex trafficking, Holly Smith, wrote about the importance of building rapport and trust and stresses that relationships with victims will take time and patience. As another victims she cites put it, “The first few meetings are you gaining their trust and building rapport.”
A warning against saying, “I understand how you feel,” and a recommendation to say, “I would like to tell your story,” is among the tips prepared by Steve Buttry, who taught at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. A free online course called Journalism and Trauma is offered by Poynter.
Particular advice on interviewing women and children is included in “The Toolkit to Combat Trafficking in Persons” from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. Also useful on interviewing and other topics is the UNDOC’s “Anti-Human Trafficking Manual for Criminal Justice Practitioners.” The World Health Organization has contributed “Ethical and Safe Interviewing Conduct.”
Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza, who was part of the AP team that exposed the use of slave labor in the Thai seafood industry, has digested the WHO and UNODC material into seven lessons:
Do no harm. Treat each woman and the situation as if the potential for harm is extreme until there is evidence to the contrary. Do not undertake any interview that will make a woman’s situation worse in the short term or longer term.
Adequately select and prepare interpreters and co-workers. Prepare photographers, videographers and interpreters about how to approach the victim, and whether their identity will be shown. Never publish images of children who have been victims of trafficking.
Respect anonymity and confidentiality. Protect a source’s identity and confidentiality throughout the entire reporting process. Images of hands, silhouettes or other non-identifying pictures can suffice.
Follow their lead. Listen to and respect each woman’s assessment of her situation and risk to her safety. Recognize that each woman will have different concerns and that the way she views her concerns may be different from how you might assess them.
Do not re-traumatize a woman. Do not ask questions intended to provoke an emotionally charged response, especially for video reporting. Be prepared to respond to a woman’s distress by backing off on the interview, taking a break, bringing in a social worker or family member.
Be prepared for emergency intervention. Be prepared to respond if a woman says she is in imminent danger. This would mean knowing what resources are available for assistance, and making sure she knows about them.
Put her story to good use. If someone has been generous enough to share their story, report it with detailed accuracy, in an engaging and informative way. This is one way to bring public interest to a problem, a step toward a solution.
Another set of suggestions was compiled by Malia Politzer, an award-winning longform journalist who specializes in international migration, human rights and investigative reporting.
Things to remember:
- Survivors of trauma might not be able to say with total accuracy exactly what happened to them.
- Survivors might remember things differently at different times.
- They might not understand why they reacted in certain ways at certain times curing trauma.
- Sense of shame/confusion might cause them to leave out details.
When interviewing victims of trauma:
- Ask for consent throughout the process.
- If they later withdraw consent, don’t use the interview (even if at first, they gave it).
- They decide where you interview them.
- They can stop at any time.
- Ask them if you can do video/photos; don’t assume (also let them know in advance of the interview that you might want videos or photos, and ask again at the time you take them).
- Explain your process, why you are doing what you are doing and the potential consequences of your reporting.
- Ask what terms the interviewee identifies with (victim/survivor/domestic trafficking, CSEC – commercially sexual exploited child – labor trafficking, etc.) and use that term in story.
- Don’t push.
- If at all possible, avoid directly challenging the victims account of things (danger of re-traumatization), but DO validate the information provided by victim with outside sources.
Advice for Reporters Working with Survivors of Child Abuse is the headline of an article summarizing a panel held at the 2019 GIJN conference in Hamburg. Three main points:
- Build trust with survivors.
- Take care of the well-being of your sources.
- Survivor communities can help you and help each other.
In a 2016 article, freelance reporter Sherry Ricchiardi reflected, “During my career, I have interviewed dozens of people whose lives have been shattered by trauma. Each time, I agonized over the effect my reporting had on their suffering.”
Also relevant are 10 suggestions, from War Horse, a US nonprofit news publication covering war and veterans’ affairs.
The guidance includes “leave the door open.” It continues, “It doesn’t matter how much knowledge you have on the topic, you can never predict how a particular individual experienced the events that happened to them.”
Trauma Reporting: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Sensitive Stories This 2019 book by Jo Healey is described in this article by the author.
Controversies Exist on Trafficking Data
Care is necessary when using official numbers about slavery and human trafficking.
The trio agreed on a new, higher, estimate — 40.3 million people trapped as slaves in 2016 in “The Global Estimates of Modern Slavery.” About 25 million were in forced labor and 15 million were in forced marriage. Before this, each body used different data, definitions and methodologies to derive quite different figures, substantially lower. (See Reuters’ summary of the changes and another by the US Congressional Research Service.)
Despite the new consensus, the ILO authors cautioned, “The regional figures are important but should be interpreted with care, bearing in mind critical gaps and limitations of the data.” Also, no reliable data was available in conflict zones.
Several critics have echoed that concern, such as Daniel Mügge, professor of Political Arithmetic at the University of Amsterdam, who warned: “In the reporting of statistics more generally, disclaimers about data quality and other warnings to data users quickly get lost.”
Estimating the levels of human trafficking remains problematic.
Counting known victims and using criminal justice data doesn’t adequately measure the scale of human trafficking flows.
The US State Department’s annual report on trafficking in 2017 said governments around the world identified 66,520 actual victims of human trafficking. “This huge disparity between the numbers of victims estimated globally and the actual number identified provides a measure of the monumental task that lies ahead of the counter-trafficking movement on an international and national level,” according to a report by Liberty Asia.
But legal system data can provide information about such things as source and destination countries, as in the 2016 UN Office of Drugs and Crime report. It says, for example, “Although most detected victims are still women, children and men now make up larger shares of the total number of victims than they did a decade ago.”
In September of 2017, an announcement was made about the creation of the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, a global repository of data on human trafficking. The joint initiative is led by IOM, the UN Migration Agency and Polaris, an independent organization combating modern slavery.
Measurement can be influenced by methodology and definitions. The debate on counting trafficking continues. It was the subject of a special 2017 issue of the Journal of Human Trafficking. “There has been an unfortunate tendency for advocates to cherry pick data, to advance data of dubious methodology, or to twist data to fit a policy agenda,” according to the introduction.
A spate of stories has been written over the years based on the assumption that major sporting events will attract large numbers of trafficked sex workers. But the evidence suggests otherwise, according to an article by Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
National and local data is notably weak, experts said, some suggesting this as a topic for journalists. Sometimes specialized, industry-funded studies can be found, such as a recent one about the Thai fishing industry.
Definitional Debates Continue
“Isn’t it strange that so few people who are assumed to be ‘modern slaves’ see themselves as such?” says the headline on an assumption-challenging article by Priya Deshingkar, Research Director of the DFID-funded Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium.
Ground-level research may contradict official generalizations, according to a 2014 Guardian article by Neil Howard of the European University Institute. He cited research saying that children in Benin doing domestic service and working in mines had decided independently to migrate for work.
Also debated is what constitutes the difference between forced sex trafficking and consensual sex work.
“The bottom line is that no one knows how many people are enslaved, even in one nation,” said Weitzer. “Huge numbers attract media attention, government attention and commitment of more resources to combat the problem, but without a solid evidence-basis.”
What’s more needed, he said, are “carefully conducted studies at the local level.”
Because of the geographic breadth and complexity of human trafficking, teamwork is often employed to get the story. Following are some examples.
To uncover an underworld of illegal workers and human exploitation in Australia’s orchards, Indonesian reporter Saiful Hasam posed as a worker.
His charade was abetted by co-authors Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker. The article was the result of a cross-border media collaboration involving Utusan Malaysia, the Melbourne-based The Age newspaper and the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.
Saiful’s reporting includes covertly recording video on his mobile phone with a work leader. “Saiful’s last undercover act is to collect his belongings and the money he is owed for his four days work,” they wrote, noting that he got shortchanged.
Virgil Grandfield, who won the 2016 Canadian National Magazine Award for Investigative Reporting, began his article, “The Cage,” with a nod to his assistant in Indonesia, “a gutsy, smart elementary school teacher about the size of a half sack of potatoes.”
Their collaboration in researching a labor trafficking scandal had led them to a dangerous point, a rendezvous with a key potential source. He wrote:
Eva met me for breakfast at my hotel in Medan, the sprawling capital of north Sumatra in Indonesia, in the summer of 2015. Almost before we sat down, she said, “Are you ready to die today?” “Yes,” I said. “I think so.” “I am not afraid to die,” she said.
To write “Pirates of the Mediterranean Sea,” a team of eight journalists from six countries and a specialist in human trafficking worked on uncovering the people and companies making a profit from selling often hazardous journeys to the migrants and refugees who hope to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.
“The team has met with prosecutors investigating these cases, has dived into trade and company registries, cross-checked with the information found in various shipping databases, and came up with a list of suspicious ships that were used to carry migrants or have been blacklisted because of their illegal activities,” the article says.
Pull on the Thread
Felicity Lawrence, who wrote about slave migrant labor in the United Kingdom for The Guardian, described her process:
My journalistic approach is to listen to as many people as possible through extensive interviewing on the ground. From those interviews, I try to understand the big trends of change, and to look at the macro picture and whether it is confirmed by other research and statistics. From there, I burrow back down to find the best grassroots examples to explain what’s going on…. So I don’t have a single piece I am most proud of: one thing tends to lead to another. You pull on a thread and it keeps unraveling through different pieces over years.
Eyes Screamed for Help
“The eyes of a teenaged boy kept as a sex slave by a police commander in a godforsaken corner of southern Afghanistan screamed for help,” wrote Anuj Chopra of Agence France Press, as he reflected on what inspired a bombshell story.
Chopra found more than expected when he began researching the Afghan custom of child sexual slavery, “bacha bazi.” His final story for AFP revealed “a widespread practice of holding child sex slaves by police in southern Uruzgan province and how the Taliban are using them as Trojan Horses to kill their abusers,” he wrote in a description of his reporting.
“When I first stumbled upon this story through a well-connected source in Uruzgan, I didn’t believe it,” he recalled, “But as I started digging around, multiple sources began corroborating the story.”
Secrecy was required. Chopra wrote:
Reporting on the deeply sensitive subject was fraught with security risks as bacha bazi is largely practiced with impunity by powerful rogue policemen. Careful to not let them get wind of my investigation, I quietly beavered away for two months under the guise of researching other stories from Uruzgan, all the while secretly interviewing sources and gathering facts.
Exploring an Open Secret
“Sometimes even open secrets are worth exploring,” wrote New York Times reporter Ian Urbina.
“I began by looking at the fraudulent recruitment and suspicious death of one Filipino man, Eril Andrade,” according to his “Reporter’s Notebook.” “But my scope quickly expanded.”
“As I traveled around small villages in the Philippines, police investigators, provincial prosecutors, seafarer advocates and former deckhands told me about widespread patterns of trafficking and related abuse,” Urbina said. Then came talking (or trying to talk) with corporate and government officials, and reading official records.
Sitting in a Waiting Room
“My biggest breakthrough” recalled Roli Srivastava of Thomson Reuters Foundation, came “while waiting for over two hours for a senior cop.”
She was just beginning her investigation into the trafficking of young Indian girls to Arabian Gulf countries. As she sat in the police station, she talked for an hour with a man who turned out to be a marriage agent cooperating with the police.
Afterward, Srivastava continued to dig, interviewing victims and those who helped victims. “I also tracked down a senior Qazi (who performs Muslim marriages) whose name I had from the interviews I was taking of victims who spoke about the problem and its genesis.”
“I was aware of the story for over a decade,” she told GIJN. “In fact, there was a Hindi film in the 1980s on the trade of young girls in this marriage market of Hyderabad. What I discovered this time was the scale of this racket, the massive network and the money involved. Also learned that patience almost always yields good information.”
- Listen to Irish journalist Sean O’Driscoll talk about his investigations into migrant worker rights in the UAE and Nigerian journalist Tobore Mit Ovuorie who went undercover in Nigeria’s trafficking circles.
- Listen to Martha Mendosa and Esther Htusan analyze how the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP story Seafood From Slaves was investigated:
Let us know what resources we might have left out. GIJN welcomes further contributions for this resource page.
Credit for top photo: Kay Chernush for the US State Department.
This guide was put together by Toby McIntosh, director of GIJN’s Resource Center. He was with Bloomberg BNA in Washington for 39 years. He is the former editor of FreedomInfo.org (2010-2017), where he wrote about FOI policies worldwide, and serves on the steering committee of FOIANet, an international network of FOI advocates.