226 – Media Ethics: Where Do You Draw the Line?

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak discuss new guidelines released by the U.S. Department of State for effective public awareness and outreach efforts for human trafficking. In order to have ethical practices to empower victims, we must be vigilant in how we frame our media messages. Sandie emphasizes three central ideas from the guidelines that are necessary for ethical public awareness and outreach.

Key Points

  • A central idea to take away from the new guidelines is to avoid conflated statistics and instead, use sources with reliable statistics that better demonstrate the bigger picture.
  • Another key idea is to frame our messaging in a thoughtful way that avoids promoting misconceptions about human trafficking.
  • Additionally, we must choose images that properly represent the story, are more in line with accurate statistics, and do not sensationalize survivors’ experiences.
  • Overall, we need to make sure that we understand what a victim-centered, trauma-informed message looks like. It’s going to be empowering and avoid re-traumatization.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the ending human trafficking podcast. This is episode number 226 – Media Ethics: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, today a conversation about media ethics and where we draw the line. And this is a conversation we’ve had many times in different contexts, of course, of the show. But there’s some new materials available that we wanted to dive in on.

Sandie [00:01:03] Yes, and I’m excited to bring to your attention a new guideline that has been released by our Department of State Office on Trafficking in Persons. First, though, I’d like to respond to some text messages, emails, and social media increase about how is the Global Center for Women and Justice doing during COVID-19? And to respond to that, I just want everyone to know we are working remotely. And Dave and I are recording this remotely. He’s in his stay at home secure place and I’m in mine. And the biggest thing that people can do is to continue to support the work. Our work continues even in COVID-19. We continue to work remotely. We’re still working with task forces and survivors who are pursuing their education now entirely online. So, if you wanted to do something, please give. And you can go to www.gcwj.org and hit the donate button. That’s how you can help us during COVID-19.

Dave [00:02:26] We have many people in our community that do support not only this show, but perhaps more importantly, support the work of the center and all the work you’ve done Sandie over the years through the Global Center for Women and Justice. So, thank you if you have been one of those supporters. And to reinforce what Sandie said, we are very blessed, we have a wonderful team, we have wonderful volunteers already. We’re not seeking more help in that way. You can certainly continue to give, though, or perhaps give for the first time if you have not before. That’ll continue to support our work and support Sandie’s work and the work of the show. So, here we are, Sandie, and we’re continually moving forward as we always are, regardless of what’s happening in the world, because this is such an important issue. And today, even more on how we can use, speaking of the podcast, how we can use media well in order to get the message out there.

Sandie [00:03:18] And we have such a great platform to share these guidelines. And it’s very interesting, guidelines are vetted documents when they’re produced by our government. And so, this wasn’t something that somebody put together overnight, it’s a five-page document. And I really want to emphasize it’s only five pages, which is pretty spectacular for a government guidelines document. Don’t you agree?

Dave [00:03:47] I do agree.

Sandie [00:03:48] And what is particularly unique about this is it is a survivor informed document. So, federal agencies worked on it together. The president’s interagency task force, along with the Survivor Advisory Council. So, it is not just somebody’s rules. These have been vetted and we have heard from survivors about how they want their story told.

Dave [00:04:20] One of the challenges I know Sandie when thinking about telling stories is the way to do that and also what not to do that and how to really think about the implications of telling a survivor story. And I know you have seen many examples of this done poorly or done without thought. And you’ve also seen some good examples of this. At a big picture level, what are some of the things that are concerning to you when you do see them out there in the world as first people sharing stories?

Sandie [00:04:52] Well, I share a lot of the angst that comes through in this document from the survivors. It’s their story to tell. So, make sure you have permission to tell their story. And sometimes in fundraising, there’s a chance that we might focus so much on a single story that we use it. And I’m emphasizing the word “use it” to raise the emotional response to the giving opportunity when we actually need to be thinking about not just our outputs, but what are our outcomes? How are we using our platform, our nonprofit, the funds that people give for the big picture? And that is what part of this document is about. So, I’m excited to have this conversation with you.

Dave [00:05:53] As you’ve reviewed this document and thought about the work that we do and how we utilize media. What comes up for you as central that you’d love to see organizations really lean in on and leaders and organizations who are helping to end human trafficking to be thinking about?

Sandie [00:06:13] Well, I think there are two segments. One is how we talk about statistics. And the other is how we talk about messaging. And when we look at statistics, I know people are very aware of how often I talk about statistics and how I avoid using conflated statistics. And so, when I teach the antihuman trafficking class, one of the first quizzes we do is a quiz on where did these stats come from? And many times, old statistics that still show up on Web pages are already proven not to be accurate. So, this guideline asks us to really look at where our statistics come from. And the State Department doesn’t just talk about that. They have recently funded with five million dollars a very, very rigorous research project into prevalence studies. So, we aren’t guessing how many victims there are, we aren’t guessing how many survivors there are. But we actually have real numbers. In this document, the recommended statistics that have some validity and are recognized by stakeholders in this movement are often the ones that are produced by International Labor Organization, and they produce a report every year. And their statistics are built mostly on a framework of collecting data from multiple agencies across government nonprofits and overlaying that with others in the private economy. So, it’s a layered approach to finding the prevalence numbers. So, the International Labor Organization. We also build a lot of our understanding on the statistics around human trafficking in the U.S. based on the number of calls that we get to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. So, those data sets are informative, but again, they are not completely the entire picture. What about the calls we don’t get? What about the communities where they haven’t learned the hotline number? So, we’re always looking at that. And then the other place to find statistics that are really pretty detailed, especially if you are looking for statistics in the U.S. in a particular state. Those are our annual federal reports and the Trafficking in Persons report, you know, covers internationally. But we also have the attorney general’s annual report and we look at the numbers of new cases being opened for investigation, how many defendants have been charged, how much money are we putting into it. Dave, that’s a great question. And that’s a statistic that we need to be tracking. We often hear that the international number that people guess for the profits made from human trafficking is in the neighborhood of 150 billion dollars. But in one study, they looked at how much money was being spent on the other side. And it was in the 150 million categories. So, discrepancy there. We also see statistics for the number of child trafficking victims. And another number that tells us more about international victims is to see how many are granted T visas and the number of continued presences permits that are released. So, there’s lots of ways for us to start gathering real statistics. And my own county, our Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force produces statistical reports every year. So, when I’m speaking to an Orange County group, I check with our task force. And recently, I did something around prosecution. So, I called the D.A.’s office to make sure that my numbers were accurate. We have over 300 convictions right here in Orange County. That’s the kind of accuracy we want and is ethical, right?

Dave [00:11:00] It’s really fascinating thinking about the statistics, Sandie, because when I think about statistics, the thing I think about is the number of cases and reporting a number of calls to the hotline, like you mentioned earlier, but I haven’t really thought about it from the financial standpoint of thinking about how much money is estimated to come from trafficking, but also how much is being spent. And that that is a really fascinating lens to look through this and to be able to then get a better picture. And as you pointed out, the statistics are so challenging in so many ways because so much goes unreported. And then even when calls increased to the hotline, you know, is that because of more awareness, because of more incidents, there’s a lot of different variables to consider when thinking about statistics.

Sandie [00:11:44] I really geek out when they did the research forum recently out of the State Department. If you’re really into that, I’ll put a link in the show notes. It’s three hours, but the understanding of what we have to do to do valid statistical studies of the prevalence of human trafficking. It’s going to take some hard work.

Dave [00:12:06] You mentioned also the second piece of messaging. Tell me more about what this report says on messaging.

Sandie [00:12:12] Well, it talks to us about how our messages should be crafted. It should be based on what are the goals, audience, and method of delivery. So, we don’t have a one size fits all. I talked to junior high kids differently than I do high school kids and church ladies. So, be aware of your audience. And we want to avoid sensationalism. We want to actually have goals that keep it simple, use plain language. So, things are not conflated, mixed up, confused. And we avoid promoting misconceptions about human trafficking. This is one of the biggest problems I think we have. That’s why constantly I’m arguing with people about the fact that there is more labor trafficking than sex trafficking. But the message hasn’t been received. I think one of the things that will help us is to follow the guideline, to be very concise, and to be able to provide resources to people. Always having an action response, like here’s the National Human Trafficking Hotline phone number, or text, or Web site. And a big caveat in the message section is to avoid language like “rescue” or “save”. The Survivor focus has commented that that is not strengths-based or empowering. But from my perspective, rescue makes it sound like and now you’re done, bye we can all go home. When we know that we have a long journey to complete restoration.

Dave [00:14:01] You mentioned things to avoid. And I’m curious, what’s perhaps an example or two of things that you have seen out there that are well intended mostly, but you would invite people to think about approaching a different way?

Sandie [00:14:16] Well, I think that we might want to recognize some things like victims don’t self-identify. We can’t go around and count them, they raise their hands. They often don’t even know that they’re victims. We need to make sure that we understand what a victim-centered, trauma-informed message looks like. It’s going to be empowering and avoid re-traumatization. I find myself in large gatherings talking to one or two, three or four, after a meeting. And they were survivors. And I remember the first time, way early in my anti-trafficking career, I was speaking out in New Hampshire and a woman came up to me afterwards, identified herself as a survivor and said that is the first time anybody ever told people how strong I am. I thought, oh, my gosh, it didn’t even occur to me that we minimize and diminish survivors often in the way we talk about victims.

Dave [00:15:30] And that comes back to the recommendation to avoid language like rescue and save because that doesn’t line up with an empowering message.

Sandie [00:15:41] That’s right. And we want to focus on human rights, dignity, autonomy, self-determination, and use positive framing. And when they wrote this report, they even told us how to display our message with brighter colors, positive images in order to signal that help is available. So, don’t use dark colors. Don’t look foreboding. It needs to be inviting and engaging and empowering.

Dave [00:16:12] It’s interesting you say that, because when I think back over the years of us doing this work together, not from the Global Center, but from many other organizations and seeing Web sites and advertisements and banners, many of them are that dark, that person who is looking trapped. And again, well intended, but it’s very different than what you’re saying here today.

Sandie [00:16:35] Well, and you can always ask yourself a question is the way I’m presenting this, and now I’m using air quotes, “packaging my message”, does it commodify a human being? I remember being horrified when I saw a picture of women wrapped in a meat tray with saran wrap over it on display as a way to fight human trafficking. We can’t use those kinds of images. So, what do you think survivors think about how you’re packaging your message? That’s a good question to ask yourself. And in this document, they actually ask survivors for guidelines. And it’s an interesting question to ask your team. Did anybody ask a survivor what they think about how we told that story, how we promoted this on Facebook, the images we chose? Those are really important pieces. So, the recommendation from the survivors is always include them, consult them on the development of the content. And I’ve worked a lot with Shyima Hall, and I’ve asked her, is this a good picture? Can we use this picture review? And I remember the day she told me some journalist had taken a picture and used it online without her permission. But, you know, that’s what newspaper groups do. What really bothered her the most were the nonprofits that captured that picture and then used it in their media, in their Web sites, in their books. And when she asked me to reach out and ask them to take it down, many of them refused and cited the fact this was public access. And I’m not an attorney, I don’t know where all of that falls out. But I know one thing, this is a human being. This is someone whose dignity was minimized in a picture that she did not want. And as a nonprofit leader, I don’t want that picture on my Web site. And I think we need to follow their guidelines. They actually suggest that we secure written permission before featuring a survivor in any of our material. So, we don’t just use a picture without permission. That seems like common courtesy, right?

Dave [00:19:15] Well, I was going to say that is the same kind of operating procedure that many organizations use anyway who are media savvy is anytime you’re using a picture of someone for whatever reason, you would secure some sort of release. And, you know, obviously we’re not giving any kind of legal advice here, Sandie. But it is, I think, the interesting part for me thinking about this from an organizational leadership standpoint is I think sometimes we error in judgment on thinking, well, were intending well and were doing something to try and eliminate human trafficking. And because our heart is in the right place and because we are doing something for the greater good of the world, that somehow the normal rules and guidelines of how you get permission and reach out and follow media rules don’t apply and you get a pass. And of course, you don’t get a pass, right? There’s good reasons why those are there, not just legally but ethically of utilizing people’s images. And so, as I say, all that out loud, Sandie, I’m conscious that many organizations have made that mistake before, and maybe some folks listening are thinking about the images, the media, the things they have out in the world right now and thinking maybe I haven’t thought about this before. For the person who is thinking that and there is some things out there that they may want to change coming out of this conversation, where would you advise them to start?

Sandie [00:20:50] I think there are a lot of survivors that would be very willing to be a consultant and not as a volunteer, my friends, but compensated like any other subject matter expert. That’s a good place to start. Ask them how they see the way you’re telling the story, to see the way your messaging your anti-trafficking work. And then establish guidelines that follow your procedures and ask everybody to follow those in your organization, in your social media. And I think it’s really important to do media reviews from time to time just to make sure that you don’t fall off the wagon, so to speak, and take the easy route where you don’t check the source. You don’t get permission, don’t fall off of the best practice. I think also including survivors in how their story is told. Sometimes we are very quick to just tell the story. Here’s the data, they were in this city, this happened, blah, blah, blah. But in this document, what they want us to ask is an open-ended question. So, if I’m talking to a survivor and they’re going to be part of a presentation for law enforcement, hospital staff, instead of asking them to say boom, boom, boom, I should ask them, what should this audience understand about human trafficking? What do you want them to know? And that becomes part of a more layered and textured message that’s inclusive.

Dave [00:22:41] One thing I’m curious about in what you just said is I know you have done these many times of working with survivors and compensating them for their work and their consulting. And I just haven’t been involved in that because of my role within the Global Center and doing the podcast. And I’m guessing there may be others out there who hear what you’re saying today and like and wonder, okay, you know, maybe I should talk to Survivor and then, you know, actually bring them on as a consultant and compensate them for their time. For someone who’s never done that for an organization, or done that before, or maybe hasn’t even really had a conversation with a survivor before. What’s the best place to start with that and just engage in that kind of relationship?

Sandie [00:23:24] I think it’s having an honest conversation with a survivor. And if you don’t know a survivor to include, feel free to send me an email and I’ll get you connected with survivors who are willing to do that kind of consulting. When you think about your organization and the expectations, when you send out a speaker, think about how you would equally compensate a Survivor speaker. When you ask a consultant to do work on your Web page, what’s the minimum hourly wage for that? Pay the same to a consultant that’s doing that kind of work for you on your Web page.

Dave [00:24:06] Huge. Thank you for that. And thank you for the invitation for folks to reach out if they are seeking who that person may be for them and for their organization. Sandie, what have we missed in this report that we should still say?

Sandie [00:24:18] I think the closing section is on images and that is going to be super challenging. Images can misrepresent the story. So, I can look through your text and you didn’t use any wild statistics. But if all of the pictures are of child sex trafficking victims, then the people listening are only looking for child sex trafficking victims. And there are adult sex trafficking victims. There are male sex trafficking victims. And so, our images have to be more in line with the statistics. We have to ask what is my picture telling in this story? And we want to also consider the demographics of the target audience. It’s especially important that we are very honest about who victims are and in the United States victims of commercial sexual exploitation are black and white and Latino and Asian. So, to only have stories and pictures of one type of victim can misrepresent and minimize those that are excluded. The other thing that they suggest is that we avoid certain images. And this is probably one of the hardest things to communicate. They don’t want us to display physical abuse. They don’t want pictures of victims with black eyes and bruises. Their explanation is that can be dehumanizing and even objectifying. It depicts a victim merely as an object of violence. And this reminds me, years ago when I first started thinking about domestic violence and Jackson Katz really influenced me when he talked about how women became the object of a sentence about domestic violence. And they actually become characterized often as a battered woman. So, a character rather than a person. So, instead of saying such and such, a husband beat his wife, Mary. Now we say Mary was a beaten wife. And that has happened in the human trafficking victim world as well. We have taken the focus off of the perpetrator and now minimized and turned it into an object of a sentence. The other problem with deciding about images is we want to make sure that they’re not only positive and reliable but that they don’t reinforce misconceptions about human trafficking or sensationalize things just for shock value to get people to look. And scantily clad women with a light and they’re in the shadows, those are the kinds of pictures that get people thinking about the sensational side of things instead of the reality. Survivors, again in this report, want to have the opportunity to give informed consent to the use of their pictures. And so, what some people have done with good intentions is they have used stock photos, and that’s good, too. But then we also need to remind people to follow the terms of that Web site, pay for the photo. And in a world where we’re fighting inhumanity, human rights, fighting for the dignity of people, then respecting those ethics in how we tell our story in our media, that has to be one of our commitments, not a goal, a commitment.

Dave [00:28:33] Sandie, this is so helpful. And we’re going to be linking to the guide, of course in the episode notes. And our hope coming out of this conversation is if your organization has a framework for media guidelines, hopefully, you’ll take a few moments to take a look at this document and look at where the update may be necessary to come in line with some of the current recommendations. And if those guidelines are not yet there for your organization. Boy, here’s a great starting point, huh Sandie, for the framework to begin that conversation. So, we invite you to do that as well. And while you’re online, we’ll also invite you to take the first step, especially if you’re perhaps listening to the show for the first time or one of the first few times. Take a moment to download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. A guide will teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified in her work through the Global Center for Women and Justice that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to the guide by going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. And you heard earlier us mention the invitation to reach out. If you do have a comment or question coming out of this conversation related to this or anything related to human trafficking, you can reach out to us at feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s a great way to do that. And we’re always also grateful for the kind reviews and ratings you leave on any of the services. If the show has been helpful to you, please consider taking a moment to do that. And Sandie, we will be back in two weeks with our next conversation. Take care, everyone.

Sandie [00:30:13] Bye.

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