Why Trafficking Storytelling: Victims of trafficking, misinformation and deceit behind trafficking, politics and agenda

Topic Progress:

Click on the numbered tabs to navigate this lesson.


Human trafficking is a complex story, which happens out of sight, in which the victims are the most vulnerable people in society. 

Journalists can play a vital role in helping people to understand the issues at hand and expose wrongdoing, so long as they deal with the story sensitively, empathetically and most of all honestly.

The role of the modern journalist to fight misinformation in all its forms is well documented, and it’s something which is vital when it comes to human trafficking.

A human story

First and foremost, trafficking is a human story. Many victims are reluctant to come forward for many different reasons. They may feel ashamed or responsible for what has happened to them, or that their experiences will result in social stigma. They may live under fear of retribution and violence.

For this reason, we encourage you to practice the best security and make the privacy and safety of people who have been exploited the primary concern in your reporting.

That said, hearing about people’s experiences first hand can be the most powerful way of exposing issues. Kenyan anti-trafficking NGO, HAART, excels in helping survivors tell their stories, in formats such as short videos that work well on the web. See this example shared by the poet Sophie Otiende, talking about her experiences

A complex story

Trafficking is a complex story that can be hard for readers to follow. It is rarely covered by specific legislation and the forces that drive traffickers, especially where forced labour is concerned, are hard to differentiate from the those that drive the economy. As this article in the Guardian explains, although many multinational companies have made commitments to eradicate trafficking from their supply chains, the truth is that many workers toil in conditions of modern slavery.

Journalists can help by focussing on labour issues and exploitation, but also by calling out fake job ads and helping readers to verify positions vacant before they apply. 

Later in this course we will look at specific tools for this.


A very misunderstood story

Although human trafficking is a very serious issue which is more common than most might think, it is also often sensationalised and misunderstood. In this paper, a team of South African researchers looked at predictions that human trafficking would increase as a reaction to big sporting events, such as the Olympics or the World Cup. In all the cases they examined, there was no observed increase in crimes of trafficking, and unwarranted media attention on the issue actually undermined reporting on serious issues that were happening.

It is important, the authors point out, to be aware that although many of those who are trafficked are forced into sex work, it does not follow that all sex workers are victims.

Research in Southern Africa has established that a number of migrant women choose to take on sex work as a practical solution (Kiwanuka & Monson, 2009) to periods of intense economic strain. Although some may make this choice reluctantly, they are not victims of trafficking. Therefore, they should not be treated as victims to be “rescued” and returned to their countries of origin. The idea that migrant sex workers need to be “rescued” and “rehabilitated” is harmful, as it overlooks the agency and rights of those who engage in sex work (Butcher, 2003). 

A story that is exploited by those with an agenda

Because human trafficking is a complex issue that is hard to understand, oversimplifications of the issue are often used by those who wish to push their own agenda. 

As well as being wary of any claims about sudden increases in human trafficking, we also need to guard against those who would use it to disrupt communities. 

In a 2020 investigation which looked at the discussion of human trafficking on social media platforms in South Africa, Code for Africa and iLab used tools such as Meltwater to analyse conversations. 

They found that many discussions which were ostensibly discussing contemporary court cases used xenophobic language and introduced hashtags that are associated with nationalist groups.

For examples, see the images above.

Let’s recap