Aidan White

10th April 2018


The human trafficking story, one of the most challenging and ethically testing assignments for media, affects millions of people. Some of them are among the most vulnerable people in the world – groups of people, including children, who are bought and sold and who live and work in slave labour conditions.

Telling their story requires journalism of humanity. Media need to show the utmost sensitivity, not least because slipshod language and careless, sensationalist reporting can incite hatred and sometimes violence.

It is not just the stereotypes that do damage. Ignorance and misunderstanding often deflect policymakers and governments from giving attention to the root causes of social dislocation. Focusing on trafficked migrants, who are the victims of a multi-million illegal market in human suffering, may make them scapegoats and prevent much-needed public debate on how to find rational solutions to social crises.

For that reason the EJN has been working with international partners who have commissioned and published a detailed set of guidelines and policies that are designed to help editors and reporters to shape their stories in ways that avoid the dangers lurking in an aggressive and competitive media landscape.

The International Centre for Migration Policy Development, based in Vienna and which has successfully concluded a recent project with the European Union, asked the EJN to help them frame a set of guidelines to help media and journalism play a positive role in helping policymakers and communities worldwide understand why trafficking must be eradicated.

That is a long-term ambition, but in the short term media can ensure that political leaders and the public at large get to read, hear and see the full story. Telling the story in an informed and temperate voice is an essential first step in generating the political will needed to overcome the fundamental causes of human trafficking.

The full guidelines can be found here and they provide advice and suggestions that can help journalists and editors 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.

The guide spells out how credible journalism requires reporters and editors to know and understand what they are talking about. The words and terminology we use to discuss human trafficking often have clear legal definitions. Journalists should use them carefully and with precision.

Few journalists, for instance, know the precise and detailed differences between human trafficking (the criminal exploitation and control of people shipped from country to country in different forms of slavery and bondage) and people smuggling (the business of helping people make irregular journeys avoiding official procedures that govern movement from one country to another).

These guidelines also cover tips on interviewing, protection of children and the use of pictures and images, and there are also investigative story tips. The trafficking story is on almost everyone’s doorstep. The media might examine how local low-grade services (car-washes, nail bars, construction work and farm labouring) have business models built upon cheap labour.

Are the workers involved potentially trafficked persons? Journalists can follow the money and look for slavery-tainted raw materials. They can show their audience how we all might be connected to human trafficking. It will get people’s attention.

One key problem in covering trafficking issues is the state of relations between media and groups working to combat trafficking, forced labour, and child abuse. The guidelines recommend that journalists should build good and reliable contacts with advocacy groups who are wary of press sensationalism and are often reluctant to publicise the shocking facts about trafficking or forced labour (for example, by giving journalists access to victim interviews).

When better connections are made, it also helps to solve the problem caused by a lack of reliable research and data available to journalists, material that is critical to shaping a story. Media can help to build trust by improving the capacity for editorial work in this area, giving reporters more time for research; organising internal newsroom briefings on human trafficking issues; and working closely with public authorities and international agencies, particularly in providing information on numbers of victims of trafficking;

Media can also launch focused campaigns on trafficking. These can also reinforce public trust in journalism. Some good examples of where the media’s engagement with this issue has delivered powerful journalism include the Freedom Project from CNN and Aljazeera’s Slavery: A 21st Century Evil campaign.

Even in the worst of cases, there can be positive stories to tell. Too often, it’s easy for the public to think of people who are victims of trafficking or in forced labour as powerless individuals who are permanently damaged. That isn’t always true. Journalism that highlights human resilience and tells the story of how people can rebuild their lives out of the tragedy of modern slavery and forced labour tells a different story.


Find codes and standards for journalists at

Two reports on media reporting of migration issues:


Some key political initiatives and resources from international agencies which journalists and media should be aware of:

Media Links:


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