How you write about issues can and does influence thousands of people. If you’re writing a story about commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children, we’d love to be a resource to you. In addition to this guide, we’ve got experts and those in the field who would be happy to speak with formal press, providing quotes for your story and answering any questions you have.
There’s no such thing as a child prostitute.
The word “prostitute” refers to a person who engages in sexual activity in exchange for money. When the average person hears the word “prostitute” there is an implication of choice. But under federal law, persons under the age of 18 cannot legally consent to commercial sex, so they are always legally classified as victims. Using this term perpetuates an incorrect and damaging idea. In fact, the Associated Press Stylebook guide now recommends writers avoid using the word “prostitute” when a child is involved because of the implication that the youth “is voluntarily trading sex for money.”
Be careful with statistics.
So many statistics in the anti-trafficking community are a game of telephone. By quickly slapping a stat over your story, you could unknowingly perpetuate a problem that threatens the integrity of the movement to end child trafficking. You could become a cited source, so don’t blindly trust what you read in another article or organization’s website, including ours. Find the original research source. Look for research that is recent, be conservative, name your source, and do not state something as a fact when it’s an estimate. Trafficking is an illegal underground issue; it is incredibly complex and underreported. For these reasons, it is difficult to measure, though more research is desperately needed. We know the problem is real. We know the problem is big. And behind every disputable estimate is a real person that cannot be dismissed. Theirs are the stories we need your help to make known.
Be sure it’s clear the relationship is one of abuse, exploitation, and victimization.
Simply using the word “relationship” is vague, and leaves readers to assume it was a typical romantic connection. Instead of saying “The relationship began in January,” say “The exploitation began in January.” You may need to be more specific to clarify this by saying, “In January, Jessica met the man who would become her trafficker.” To leave readers thinking this relationship was simply “romantic” or “consensual” would be problematic. Again, under federal law, a person under the age of 18 cannot consent to commercial sex. We would describe it as “abuse” or even “exploitation.”
Beware of sensationalism and your own assumptions.
The predominate image or “Hollywood version” of trafficking (children kidnapped and held under lock and key) can be harmful. To oversimplify the story to the expected archetype can leave both victims of trafficking and the public around them (including bystanders, jury members, teachers, and law enforcement) unable to see the reality of what’s happening in their midst. Many cases of trafficking we’ve come across include coercion and manipulation as part of the equation, instead of simply physical force and confinement. While it’s true there are children kidnapped and locked away, it is not the majority of occurrences.
Stockholm syndrome is real.
A synonymous phrase for Stockholm syndrome is “trauma bonding” but they’re describing the same thing—when an abuser forms or fosters an emotional attachment (“friendship,” “love,” etc.) in the life of a victim. Not only is this a common experience for those who have been traumatized, but it is a classic tactic abusers use to maintain their position of exploitation. We’ve encountered children who are not happy to leave their abuser because they’ve grown attached to them. Be aware of this potential complexity as you approach a piece.
Don’t use the word ‘force’ if you mean something else or could be more specific.
The legal definition says that human trafficking “involves controlling a person through force, fraud, and/or coercion to exploit the victim for forced labor, sexual exploitation, or both.” Using these words in your article will be helpful, but it’s important to know what they mean. “The trafficker forced Jessica to work the streets at night” would be incorrect unless there was physical force involved. Be as specific as you can. Instead, you might say, “The trafficker coerced Jessica to work the streets at night using threats and intimidation.” Being as specific as you can in choosing a word to describe the method of trafficking and exploitation is helpful, and can prevent harmful misunderstanding.
Avoid victim-blaming language.
It can be a matter of syntax, but it makes a world of difference what readers (and victims) come away with. For example, say “Men solicited Jessica” instead of “Jessica solicited men.” If Jessica is under 18, she can’t solicit men for sex.
Victims of trafficking are rarely voiceless or invisible.
We understand that this kind of language is meant to describe children in the shadows and out of the public eye, but it is disempowering. By instead focusing on how we don’t hear them or we don’t see them, the onus of responsibility is on us, rather than the child.
Choose your accompanying photos thoughtfully.
Use images that genuinely illustrate the story you’re telling, not ones that perpetuate sensational stereotypes that can alienate the public from reality. Be aware of human dignity in the photos you choose for articles. Random girls in their underwear, chains and cages, or children looking generally pitiful isn’t providing a helpful character illustration of the victims and survivors of trafficking.
As a journalist, try as best you can to work with your headline writer.
We know at most publications, writers don’t choose the headline. But for many readers, a headline is all they’ll remember. If at all possible, please try to get the headline ahead of time and give suggestions if you feel it doesn’t fall in line with any of these guidelines.
Respect the safety and privacy of victims.
Love146 does not identify victims under 18. So much control has been taken from them—it can be further exploitative to disregard their future ability to keep this experience private. We strongly suggest using pseudonyms and concealing identity unless the victim/survivor specifically requests to go public. Remember, this is their story. It’s good to explain that anything your article records will go with them forever.
Frame experiences as events, not identities.
It’s more accurate and dignifying to victims to simply say what happened in the past instead of framing your language in a way that carries that event into a stationary identity for the person. Instead of “Trafficking survivor Jessica,…” say “Jessica, who escaped trafficking in 2010…”
If you’d like to speak with an expert on our team about an article you’re working on, feel free to contact any of the individuals below. They’d be happy to provide a quote, answer a question or clear up any confusion. Unfortunately, to respect the time and energy of staff, we cannot accept interviews from those outside of the press.
Contact Love146 at 203.772.4420 or firstname.lastname@example.org