Q&A with Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston, co-directors of The Irina Project

Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston are faculty members at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are also co-directors of The Irina Project, which examines media coverage of sex trafficking. In this interview, conducted by email, Friedman and Johnston discuss the project and offer guidance to reporters and editors covering this issue.

Q. What is The Irina Project? What do you two hope to achieve?

A. The Irina Project, or TIP, combines scholarly research with community engagement.

The purpose of our work is to first, better understand the ways that sex trafficking is covered in news media and second, to illuminate and comment on news routines and lapses that may result in audience misunderstanding or apathy toward the crime of sex trafficking.

Our aim is to bring together with journalists a range of groups most knowledgeable about trafficking: survivors, health-care workers, social workers, law enforcement, for example, as a way to widen the range of sources and stories and otherwise improve the norms of coverage. We’re working now on a Web-based resource that will include access to experts (database of experts, multimedia clips/interviews), resources (news, legal information, statistics, legislation, publications, organizations); reporting tip sheets; and social networking (blog, Twitter, wiki). It will bring together journalists, data, and knowledgeable sources in an effort to increase awareness of and promote the responsible reporting of sex trafficking.

Q. What are some of the common problems you see in media coverage of sex trafficking? How can journalists better cover this topic?

A. In our 2008 study — the first systematic analysis of news coverage of sex trafficking — we found that trafficking was typically reported as breaking (crime) news with little or no context, and rarely included the voices of the trafficked. In subsequent studies, we found these same patterns in coverage. These patterns of coverage, we argue, lead to victim-blaming, misdirected resources and poor policy decisions that hurt individuals who are trafficked.

Trafficking is a complex topic, so it’s no surprise when journalists find it challenging. Some suggestions are to approach the story from a wider range of angles, such as public health and human rights; and to draw upon a bigger pool of sources, including those most closely involved with and profoundly affected by the issue.

Further complicating things is that statistical information on trafficking is often suspect given competing agendas, the limitations of data collection and the fact that sexual exploitation is historically an underreported crime.

Journalists must keep up with a mass of data generated by an increasing number of governmental and non-governmental sources, and they must find ways to mine the data in their communities to identify the stories and accurately report on this topic in a way that informs community-based conversations and policy decisions. To do this, they need knowledge of data sources, subject experts and contacts, as well as proficiency with the approaches and tools useful for identifying and analyzing trends and presenting clearly, without sensationalism, potentially complex data in trafficking stories.

Q. What guidelines on word choice would you offer for editors who are writing headlines, captions and tweets about this topic?

A. As is true when covering other forms of violence, editors working on stories about trafficking must be especially careful with language. To do otherwise not only risks misrepresenting the issue, but may jeopardize the safety and recovery of trafficking survivors. Here are just a few suggestions:

    • Never use the term “child prostitute.” The term implies that a child has made the choice to become involved in prostitution.
    • Take care not to conflate the terms “prostitution,” “trafficking,” and “sex work.” These are contested terms among distinct communities. If unsure of the differences, see the laws in your state and municipality, and consult expert sources.
    • Rather than “pimp,” which has been normalized and trivialized in popular culture, use “trafficker” to communicate the seriousness of the offense.
    • If a trafficking survivor is included in the story, follow his/her lead, e.g., whether he/she wants to be identified by name or photograph.
    • Avoid cliché images like women in chains, as it perpetuates stereotypes about trafficking.
    • Avoid picturing and identifying individuals arrested for prostitution.

Q. You two were recently selected for the Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars program at UNC. What are your plans for that program and for the project overall?

A. We’re thrilled to be part of the FES program, having admired so much of the work that’s come out of it already. Our research of trafficking will continue, but we want to find more ways to translate our research findings into practical applications for reporters.

We recognize the need to connect with a much wider range of communities—communities with which we are less familiar (in comparison to news organizations), which may be wary of the media (such as survivors), and/or whose aims might appear to be at odds with journalism. Our goal is to bring these communities together, united under a shared goal to raise awareness about sex trafficking and its consequences and to propose solutions.

And of course, as faculty at UNC become more dependent on external funding, we want to be more effective at identifying funding sources and writing successful applications. The FES will bring us together with experienced scholars who have struggled with similar concerns and developed strategies to address them.