[Editor’s note: The story below by journalist Sophie Whisnant  of the UNC Media Hub was produced as part of a package that also includes an original news video by journalist Sydney Persing  (click here to watch it ) and the illustration below by artist Sabrina Cheung . Click here  to learn more about the UNC Media Hub.]
CHAPEL HILL – The media’s portrayal of human trafficking has often perpetuated the wrong idea of how people are abused and what it means to be a survivor, say advocates and researchers close to the issue.
Anne Johnston and Barbara Friedman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started researching media coverage of sex trafficking in 2009.
“We found that a lot of people had very strong opinions about how the media was covering sex trafficking, and they weren’t very good,” Johnston said. “They were criticizing reporters; they were calling the coverage sensationalistic.”
Together, the professors created The Irina Project , named after a New York Times profile in the late 1990s that called a trafficking survivor “Irina.” The national research project and advocacy group’s aim is to correct the public’s misconceptions of trafficking by equipping reporters with the tools they need.
North Carolina is eighth in the nation in reported cases of human trafficking. Sex trafficking, a type of human trafficking, is when an adult or child is engaged in a commercial sex act due to force, fraud and/or coercion. This often shows its face in the media as prostitution, a crime that can put the man or woman being trafficked behind bars.
When one survivor of trafficking thought her past was behind her, it was the language of the media that was setting her back, Johnston said.
She had started a new business and spoke with reporters about it, but the stories routinely referred to her as a “16-year-old prostitute,” not the successful survivor she is.
Being labeled that way, years after the fact, was a source of frustration, Johnston said. Language is one of the things The Irina Project has pointed to as a problem with how the media talks about trafficking.
There are others:
- Stories about trafficking appear in the news as short articles focused on who gets charged with what crime. Ashley Hedrick, graduate assistant and researcher for The Irina Project, said this language limits the public’s understanding of trafficking.
- The media often run stock photos with stories that don’t accurately depict trafficking, said Evelyn Mitchell, graduate assistant and Irina Project researcher. Rarely, she said, is a victim physically chained to anything, yet those sorts of images are common.
- False ideas are often perpetuated about how trafficking occurs, said Dean Duncan, principal investigator for Project No Rest , which responds to the exploitation and trafficking of minors in North Carolina’s welfare system.
Some media repeat urban legends that trafficking occurs when people are recruited or snatched at sporting events or superstores, Duncan said.
“I am not familiar in any situations in which that has actually led to a trafficking situation,” Duncan said, “but I’ve certainly seen the stories.”
Trafficking occurs most often when young people seeking a romantic relationship are manipulated by their partner until they are being exploited for sex, Duncan said.
The idea that trafficking is a choice, or that it’s a glamorous industry with pimps, doesn’t inform the public accurately about the character of the people who are trafficked, said Dawn Ferrer from advocacy and restoration non-profit A Safe Place  in Wilmington.
“On the glamorizing part of it, (the media) just need to stop,” Ferrer said. “They need to stop making it seem like this is a viable option for a young woman that’s struggling to pay her college tuition.”
Major highways, a large military presence, gangs and rural areas with a need for cheap labor have kept North Carolina in the top 10 of the trafficking industry, according to the state Department of Administration.
Elizabeth Hunter is the coordinator of Project FIGHT  in Raleigh, a Salvation Army program that provides comprehensive case management for human trafficking survivors. The youngest client in this program is only 11 years old, and Project FIGHT has served more than 400 cases in the Carolinas since 2011.
“I feel like there is this population of people who are often invisible and that people don’t see,” Hunter said. “We walk past them every single day but they are walking very dark, secret lives that they can’t reach out for help from.”
One of the most dangerous roles in a trafficking scheme is what’s known as the “bottom bitch,” Hunter said.
The bottom bitch collects money, schedules appointments, even transports girls back and forth. Hunter said when law enforcement comes, she comes off as the trafficker.
“While she may be doing acts that appear to be crime, she really is a victim,” she said.
It is her mugshot and name that is being associated with the language and images in media that could follow her all her life.
“Maybe the story is written really well and we would praise the reporter on how it was written,” Johnston said. “If you go to the online site, you’ll see mugshots of those accused of trafficking and the women who have been arrested. So if it’s truly trafficking you’ve now stigmatized them as being prostitutes, you’ve labeled them that way.”
Trafficking survivors are not the only people who can be affected by media’s portrayal of sex trafficking.
People at risk for being exploited, like children in the welfare and foster care system or people with low self-esteem, might not recognize their vulnerability if the signs of trafficking aren’t explicitly stated by the media.
“Potential victims of trafficking suffer enormously,” Mitchell said. “People don’t know what to look for, what the signs are. The information’s not out there and all you hear is about the random busts that happen.”
Some groups are statistically more likely to fall into trafficking, but Mitchell said it’s something that really could happen to anyone.
The public’s interpretation of how and why trafficking can happen is also at risk. Young women have always been warned about the danger of being “snatched” from a public place in broad daylight, although the process is much more manipulative than that.
What can be done?
The Irina Project functions as a one-stop shop for advocacy, research and resources for reporters to produce content about trafficking that is accurate and comprehensive.
The team at the project works with reporters to check if there is language or imagery that could be improved, and they help link survivors who want to tell their stories with different news outlets.
“The Irina Project is a website, it’s a resource, it’s training, but it’s also advocacy,” Johnston said.
The website  provides tip sheets and definitions that are easily accessible to the public or reporter. As former reporters themselves, Johnston and Friedman understand deadlines come hard and fast in journalism, and it doesn’t always seem like there’s time to take such detailed care with a story. But, by promoting good sources, providing information and serving as a resource the stress of a quick story turnaround can be decreased.
Even with all the resources and research provided by the project, there is still a challenge in balancing the ethics of reporting on sex trafficking in way that represents the survivor and the facts of the case. One of the ways to do this could be including more survivor voices in stories, should they elect to tell their story, Johnston said.
Above all else though, Hunter said the men, women and children who are swept into the manipulative system of trafficking should be protected.
“It’s hard to put it all out there because you want to protect the women,” she said. “Every time they tell their story it is totally re-traumatizing. So we have to find a very trauma-friendly way to do that.”
Sophie Whisnant is a senior in the UNC School of Media and Journalism studying reporting. From Wilmington, North Carolina, Sophie has worked at the Wilmington Star-News as a Gatehouse Media intern. She has also interned at Creative Loafing, a lifestyle magazine, based in Charlotte. Sophie is pursuing a career in entertainment writing for a magazine.