Give Us An Arrest And We’ll Do A Story

The release of a year-long study of human trafficking in Cincinnati received widespread local media coverage, yet because the report lacked specific data about numbers of trafficking arrests or convictions, it was met with much skepticism by traditional media outlets.

This should not surprise anyone who knows or follows the method by which the traditional media gathers and reports the news. For starters, it is drilled into reporters throughout their careers that news is synonymous with fact, and that facts require hard data and eyewitness testimony. The report released by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) lacked that specific data: 1) because human trafficking has, strangely, not yet been criminalized in Ohio (it has in both Kentucky and Indiana and 38 other states) and therefore there are no prosecutions; and, 2) because human trafficking is intentionally an “underground” activity, its existence is not obvious – it has to be looked for.

Nearly 140 police officers, attorneys and prosecutors, judges, emergency room personnel and social service providers in Greater Cincinnati were interviewed for the survey, so if there is any assemblage of people who ought to know about trafficking, it would be this group. 91% of these interviewees are familiar with cases of human trafficking, and 41% believe that they or their organizations have encountered trafficking situations.

Yet reporters still expressed doubts about how serious the issue is locally. They pointed out that nowhere in the report’s 37 pages was there one instance cited of anyone being arrested (much less prosecuted) for the crime of trafficking human beings. Absent hard facts, the reporters said, the report lacked credibility. Absent a visible victim, the reporters said, there was no crime.

It’s a close-minded position that reflects the built-in blinders that often obscure the media’s vision. Case in point: spousal abuse, like human trafficking, was an invisible crime for millennia. Wives (and some husbands) have been assaulted, beaten and tortured behind closed doors for generations. In spite of its common occurrence, spousal abuse was rarely prosecuted. It took years of advocacy by women and human rights groups before legislation and protections were put in place and prosecution and conviction numbers began to be compiled and tracked as data. A parallel situation exists today with human trafficking.

Which points to a rather large limitation confronting the economically perilous traditional media. With smaller staffs and little original investigative journalism to speak of, journalists will be even more reliant upon official sources — court dockets, police blotters, prosecutors and defense attorneys — to ferret out crime stories. If there aren’t any human trafficking cases to report in Ohio (because state statutes don’t recognize it as a crime) the media finds itself boxed into the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: give us an arrest and then we can do a story.

A related limitation of the traditional media has to do with sources. Plenty of people know about human trafficking in Cincinnati, but for a variety of reasons, they have to carefully guard what they can reveal. For example, there are at least five suspected human trafficking incidents in the area currently being looked into by law enforcement investigators. That’s about as far as anyone in the know is willing to go, for fear of compromising their work. Others in the community who are aware of trafficking, such as emergency room personnel and social service providers, also are creditable sources, as long as they have assurances that the identities of trafficking victims are protected. The problem is that the traditional media is reluctant to go to press without hard facts, names and sources identified; as a result, a growing incidence of trafficking locally goes unreported.

Let’s hope that in the midst of the media’s search for a new model of immediacy and relevance, it will begin looking at the “facts” with a more open mind. Human trafficking is a rapidly expanding crime, global in scale, that is being felt in every city in the United States, including Cincinnati. Just because no one’s yet been booked on a trafficking charge, as the Freedom Center report makes amply clear, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening right in our own back yard.

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