Beyond the Blind Eye

Journalist Lesley Yarranton describes the difficulties in raising awareness of human trafficking.


            Imagine coming home after work and discovering a body in your backyard.  Some years ago, many who lived in the landing path of Heathrow Airport had that or a similar experience.  Autopsies concluded that all had fallen from a great height, probably from wheel wells as flights lowered their landing gears; victims probably died of cold before they fell. Many were traced to airports in Africa, and investigations there suggested that the individuals had help getting to the wheel wells to stow away, help that may or may not have been voluntary. When the press reported that human trafficking was the most likely explanation behind the deaths, readers in Britain began to recognize the enormity of this issue.

            Lesley Yarranton, a British freelance journalist who has investigated human trafficking since the 1980s, related this series of events during a panel discussion of “Human Trafficking and Media.”  She traced the frustration journalists had in convincing readers of the seriousness of the situation.  “The term itself did not help in generating public attention,” Yarranton explained.  “Human and trafficking are blind words in journalism.” The terms don’t have the impact needed.  Traffic is an annoyance, not a profound, violent offence to another person.  In Britain at least, shocking photos and lurid reports over many years, have convinced the public first, that human trafficking is not confined to other, poorer countries, and second that the issue is not a source of titillation but of shame.

            Yana Hashamova, Associate Professor and Director of the Slavic Center at Ohio State, spoke about her research into attitudes towards trafficking and audience reactions to films that address that issue. She first reported on research she had conducted regarding attitudes towards trafficking in Bulgaria and in the U.S.  Some of her findings:

—  Trafficking in Bulgarians is perceived as something which is not right, unfair. However, when trafficking involves foreigners in Bulgaria, attitudes change.  “It is their own fault” is the predominant answer. And, when it comes to sexual exploitation, public opinion is more likely to “blame” those who engaged in prostitution.

—  American students hold a more general (abstract) view of the “positive aspects” of trafficking while Bulgarians connect the “positive side” to concrete economic opportunities (to avoid poverty in one’s own country). The reasons for trafficking are also perceived differently: Americans believe that the whole society is responsible for it, while Bulgarians ascribe it to “business with people.”   American men exhibit lower interpersonal empathy and higher rape myth acceptance; they show more hostile attitudes towards rape victims.

             Hashamova then turned to the portrayal of trafficking in cinema.  She noted a voyeuristic tendency that exploited the sexual side of trafficking.  Only with more recent films, like Lilya 4 Ever, where all is seen through the woman’s eyes as she is subjected to harrowing and humiliating treatment, does the horrific over the voyeuristic aspect of trafficking come clear.  Americans found many of these movies dissatisfying; they wanted happy endings and acceptable solutions to the problem.  She is pessimistic about the impact cinema can have on the problem because cinematic elements so easily block the “shocking trauma” that trafficking represents.

            The third member of the panel was an undercover detective working in a large urban area on problems of sex trafficking.  He made it very clear that the problem has no easy solutions.  Even cases that he saw as clear cut could be compromised before they could be prosecuted.  Victims were often reluctant to speak or ran away before matters could come to trial.  Getting clear evidence that behavior was forced was difficult.  Prosecutors sometimes did not know the specifics of the trafficking laws on the books or in other instances wanted an airtight case before moving forward.  The detective was pessimistic that the legal system could solve the problem.  He offered up an unsentimental and (to the large audience present) uncomfortable view of the world of the traffickers–which might include parents who sold their daughter into prostitution or domestic servitude to pay off a gambling debt. 

            Although his close experience over many years made him sympathetic to the victims, he engaged in an extensive discussion with a member of the audience over the legalization of prostitution.  “Legalization,” the detective said, “would only make it harder to prosecute trafficking.”  He spoke of the unhelpful side of journalist sensationalism, for example when the press reported for the last Dallas Superbowl that there would be tens of thousands of women trafficked in, when in fact, the police identified 28 cases.  For the Indianapolis Superbowl, eight cases were identified.   Trafficking is more associated with what happens every day than what happens once a year.  And pending cases can be destroyed when journalists release too much information early on.

            Journalists in Britain have had some success at raising public awareness of trafficking as an offence to humanity.  Filmmakers          have made found ways to involve audiences in victims’ suffering and degradation, though such films are hard to watch.  The undercover would like to see (but doesn’t expect to see) more prosecutions, especially of pimps and those in control.  All agree that public awareness of the reality of the issue is the most practical near-term objective, and all agree that media plays an important but ambiguous role in raising awareness.  Exactly how media has succeeded so far, how much its presence impedes and assists, and exactly what the media should do to “solve” the problem are still unanswered questions.

            The panel was organized by Stepanka Korytova, as part of a faculty study group on “The Many Faces of Human Trafficking,” of the International Studies Program and of the College of Arts and Sciences Themester Fall 2012: Good Behavior, Bad Behavior: Molecules to Morality.

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