As the human trafficking problem worsens, Raymond Bechard writes, so does the issue of false and misleading media.
“Statistics are like women; mirrors of purest virtue and truth, or like whores to use as one pleases.”
—Dr. Theodor Billroth, 1885
The insensitivity of Dr. Billroth notwithstanding, the issue of commercial sexual exploitation in America is immensely difficult to define numerically. The only agreed upon statistics are those which have been repeated so often by so many that they become unquestioned statements of fact. However, simply stating a thing many times by many people does not make a thing true.
While individuals and organizations working against all forms of human trafficking and those reporting on it claim with certainty to know the absolute truth about the subject, they seem to have an extraordinary aversion to the facts.
In 2006 a congressional press release declared that the online child pornography business generated $20 billion a year in illegal income. The information was widely circulated with help from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which printed the figure and cited the congressional study.
Unable to verify the information, Carl Bialik of the Wall Street Journal decided to find the original source of the number. Through a congressional staffer, Bialik discovered the information was provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). Bialik then contacted the President of NCMEC who told him the fact came from a consulting group, McKinsey & Co. McKinsey’s representative said they got it from ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes). ECPAT said they retrieved the number from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
When Bialik contacted FBI spokesman, Paul Bresson, he was told, “The FBI has not stated the $20-billion figure. I have asked many people who would know for sure if we have attached the $20-billion number to this problem. I have scoured our website, too. Nothing!”
The origin of the $20-billion figure has never been determined.
No matter. Four years later, on May 11, 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice posted an article on their “Justice Blog” which states, “It is estimated that more than 200 new images are circulated daily and the profit derived from these criminal acts could be as high as $20 billion annually.”
In his book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, author Joseph Campbell refers to this phenomenon as “media driven myths,” which he defines as, “dubious, fanciful, and apocryphal stories about or by the news media that are often retold and widely believed . . . tales of doubtful authenticity, false, or improbable claims masquerading as factual. In a way, they are the junk food of journalism – alluring and delicious, perhaps, but not especially wholesome or nourishing.”
When the topic of trafficking children or young women and men for sexual purposes is finally broached, critical thinking is often pushed aside. The strong emotional factor overwhelms the intellect, and with good reason. It is a horrible crime that damages the soul of all who are touched by it. Yet, this is no excuse for otherwise rational people to diminish the importance of the issue with false or misleading information.
Nonetheless, we crave numbers. We clamor for statistics. We believe that if something cannot be counted, measured, or charted, it cannot be effectively communicated – or worse, exist at all. Government officials, human rights advocates, and the media have little faith in the public to consume the complexities of our societal ills. To change minds and hearts, to pass laws and regulations, to raise awareness and money, they attempt to simplify the worst of our sufferings with figures, statistics, and percentages. “In pursuing anti-trafficking projects,” explains Kay Warren, professor of international studies and anthropology at Brown University, “government bureaucracies and NGOs have become avid producers and appropriators of popular culture – circulating stories and scenarios that represent victimizers and the traumatic experiences of those who are victimized – in order to publicize their anti-trafficking efforts and reach wider publics.”
The desire for telling numbers as they pertain to CSE is acute, often leading to disagreement between otherwise closely related organizations and officials. On June 16, 2010, a panel discussion, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The news media’s role in exposing human trafficking,” was held at the United Nations in order to discuss “how the news media have helped expose and explain modern slavery – and how to do better.” During the discussion, the panel of “leading media-makers and policymakers” justifiably “urged reporters and editors to avoid salacious details and splashy, ‘sexy’ headlines that can prevent a more nuanced examination of trafficked persons’ lives and experiences.” The participating journalists also, “lamented the lack of solid data, noting that the available statistics are contradictory, unreliable, insufficient, and often skewed by ideology.”
Providing an unplanned example of statistical contradictions and the shared frustration of responsible reporters, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, head of the U.S. Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, stated in his remarks: “Almost 50,000 victims liberated last year worldwide: that’s great,” [sic] citing “the ILO number.” However, just minutes later, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said, “we do not know how big the problem is, the amount of victims rescued, probably about 20,000 or so, would be about two percent in the sea of victims.”
The new standard for clarification does not require information to be true, factual, or accurate. The new standard disregards the need for empirical evidence. Rather, it welcomes any bit of information that simply seems plausible and cannot be proven false. Anyone is now free to quote CdeBaca or Costa with their respective numbers. By the standards of current media, advocates, and government reporting, both men are correct – because no one can prove either man wrong.
Local and national media, always searching for a tagline that will bring the most people to their program in order to boost ratings and subsequent advertising dollars, lap up every salacious quote nonprofit organizations can bring them.
Of course, in an effort to continually raise more donations, these charitable organizations often create attention-grabbing, blanket statements out of thin air. Or worse, they will quote other sources with no reality in their numbers, thereby propagating information which cannot be proven or disproven. With the NGO jumping into the role of “expert” and the news outlet looking for headlines, everyone with a stake in the game plays along with the arrangement to bring the ‘important information you should know about’ to the public. It’s a powerful partnership producing virtually no real knowledge or understanding.
In a “Review of Existing Estimates of Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States and Recommendations for Improving Research and Measurement of Human Trafficking,” a report commissioned by several large anti-trafficking organizations who largely ignored its findings, it was concluded that, “The types of data reported by the U.S. Government and other non-governmental agencies is not sufficient to fully understand the nature of the trafficking problem in the United States.”
Information is rarely based on truth, reliable studies, or hard data. Instead, it is fluff; mere fiction intended to draw in more dollars and more viewers. With the current state of media, forever on deadline and under constant pressure to produce the most sensational news packages, there is no pressure to prove the facts or statistics provided by these “go to” anti-human-trafficking organizations. Anecdotal evidence rules the airwaves and the issue.
“Numbers take on a life of their own,” observes David A. Feingold, director of the Ophidian Research Institute, “gaining acceptance through repetition, often with little inquiry into their derivations. Journalists – bowing to the pressures of editors – demand numbers, any numbers. Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precision and spurious authority to many reports.”
“The trafficking of girls and women is one of several highly emotive issues which seem to overwhelm critical faculties,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Trafficking Statistics Project, which was initiated as “a first step toward clarifying what we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know about trafficking.”
Commenting on the way her colleagues report stories of human trafficking and CSE, Lynn Sherr, a former ABC News Correspondent and writer for The Daily Beast observed that “they are headline stories, they are sexy headline stories and then nobody follows through on them.”
All too often, the stories of the victims get lost in the high-pitched tenor of the attention-grabbing headlines. Meaningful information is pushed aside in this habitually circuitous reporting. While Feingold observes that, “Trafficking is clearly the flavor of the month, forcing its way up the public agenda,” its coverage in the traditional and new media is repetitive to the point of numbing their audience.
The problems discrediting the anti-human-trafficking movement are exacerbated by the profusion of sensationalists eager to get their version of the issue in the news. Their quest for money and the spotlight has them spreading statements and statistics without the slightest consideration given to the original sources or veracity of the information they are quoting.
While the topic of CSE is complex of its own merits, the eager acceptance of false and misleading information surrounding the issue has led to even greater confusion in the media and the public. Yet, the chaos and drama caused by activists so often compelled by masked agendas is not limited to the carnage done by the misinformation they propagate. The real damage is that victims are being used, once again, by those who claim to be helping them.
Without victims, there would be no reason for these organizations to exist; there would be no story to report. Solving the problem of human trafficking would bring an end to their stated missions along with the jobs of those who are employed by them, and the income and attention they enjoy. In order to “boost awareness” they use victims and numbers with reckless abandon.
The point here is that there is simply no précis to demonstrate the truth one way or another. The only truth we know with absolute certainty is that victims suffer – however many there are and wherever they may be. As anti-trafficking groups become more entrenched and focused on their own existence and, as the media works in tandem with them to entice the public, victims of trafficking – and the truth – become casualties of twisted priorities. The real work to save victims and prevent more from being exploited is sacrificed on the altar of self-promotion and financial gain.
Once again, the pain and suffering of victims are used for the money they can provide to others.
The increasingly incestuous discussion going on between all those involved in the “anti-trafficking community” has been successful mostly at closing the discourse to all those not within their limited circle. They use the same sources of information, quote the same data, seek funds from the same donors, attend the same meetings and conferences, read and write the same information online, clamor to be near the same celebrities, and take advantage of the same superficial media outlets and publicity. The repetition of their gospel gives what Stephen Colbert calls a “truthiness” to what they are saying. It may be true. It may not be. But, if we all “feel” like it’s true and agree that it’s true then it must be.
The result is an aging merry-go-round filled with riders who call themselves “experts in human trafficking” whose main purpose is to keep the ride going.
What can be stated as fact in the realm of commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and prostitution is limited to the human suffering of its individual victims. Each of them began their lives with promise. And each of them had that promise broken and torn away. Though our urge to quantify the problem often compromises our rational and critical judgment, we must not also let it diminish the humanity of the individual who is fighting to escape and survive. While many claim to be experts on the subject of human trafficking, only its victims and survivors have legitimacy in that claim. Most others are mere observers.
While we continue the struggle to accurately measure, communicate, and effectively address the issue, thereby providing it with much needed – and deserved – clarity, the priority must be those who are trapped in the grip of trafficking without regard to how many there are, but rather to who they are. Their salvation rests in the public’s realization that whatever their number, these are human beings, equal to us, and each worthy of a life filled with hope, freedom, and joy.