The human trafficking story is one of the most challenging, complex and ethically testing assignments for journalists and editors. It is a story that involves staggering numbers. People who are victims of trafficking are drawn from some of the most vulnerable human beings on the planet: the 40 million people who live in forms of slavery; or the 150 million children subject to child labour; or migrant workers, who also number around 150 million.
Millions of these people – and no one knows the true number – are also caught in trafficking and telling their story requires care and sensitivity, not least because the language, portrayal and context in which media and journalists do their reporting can do damage. It can incite hatred. It can perpetuate stereotypes. It can create ignorance and misunderstanding, deflecting attention from root causes and obstructing much-needed public debate on how to resolve the crisis.
These guidelines aim to help editors and reporters to better understand the issues and to shape their stories in ways that avoid the dangers lurking in an aggressive and competitive media landscape.
The rush to publish, the confused and unreliable world of social media, and the rise of propaganda and political influence add to concerns that journalism is becoming trapped in a world of sensational headlines and sound bites.
Human trafficking, which is closely linked to slavery and forced labour, is a complex social problem that requires thoughtful, informed and, above all, compassionate journalism to provide context, give voice to the victims and assist in the search for solutions.
Media and journalism should play a positive role in persuading the world that trafficking can be diminished if not eradicated. Political leaders and the public at large need to read, hear and see the full story. It is an essential first step in generating the political will needed to overcome the fundamental causes of human trafficking.
The advice and suggestions set out in these pages can help journalists to think twice about how they report on trafficking; to consider the legal and human rights issues involved; the treatment of the victims, their privacy and welfare; and how to tell the story with humanity and style while helping audiences to understand better what must be done.