UQ Trafficking in Persons Working Group
Trafficking and the media

Trafficking–related articles published from January 1, 2008 onwards in the Australian media (or about Australia in the foreign media) are made available on this site. Their content is reproduced in full, and all copyright rests with their original authors/publishers.

Trafficking in persons is a complex issue that attracts vigorous debate from a range of different groups as to its definition, causes and solutions. The media has traditionally been seen as a facilitator of these debates by serving as a forum that gives a voice to these myriad points of view. This essential function, however, gives the news media great power to influence debate and set the agenda by what they choose to report, and how. The type of coverage afforded to the scourge of human trafficking can have a marked impact on policy outcomes, and thus on the victims of the problem.

What is clear from the many news reports that specifically relate to human trafficking is that original and thought-provoking journalism on the issue is thin on the ground. Over 90 per cent of the articles listed here are ‘hard news’ stories that simply reproduce facts, figures and quotes, while offering little to no insight or analysis on the topic. Crucially, between January 2008 and January 2010 only three news reports can be classed as investigative reports, with four more falling under the umbrella of opinion or feature.

This dearth of investigative reporting, long emblematic of the media’s watchdog role, is perhaps unsurprising as newsroom budgets shrink and chiefs of staff place reporters on tried-and-tested beats such as the court rounds. As Geoff Turner notes: “One of the first forms of journalism to feel the pinch in editorial budget cuts is investigative journalism, the area where the public watchdog is most likely to show its teeth.”[1] Another contributing factor is Australia’s restrictive defamation laws, which mean that a chief of staff who is prepared to lose a reporter’s availability for non-investigative work must also be prepared for the chance that the information gathered cannot be published.[2] Though indicative of a wider trend in journalism generally, the complex issues and underground nature of human trafficking no doubt contributes to the lack of original reporting in the media.

The number of news reports on human trafficking usually spikes around significant events such as court proceedings, which accounted for a staggering 45 per cent of the articles examined. Court reports are neither complicated nor expensive to produce, making them an attractive option for newsrooms hamstrung by dwindling finances. The obvious downside is that these types of reports carry almost no extraneous information and cannot help but paint an incomplete picture of the problem, as alternative viewpoints are excluded and the focus is put squarely on the criminal aspect of human trafficking at the expense of potential social root causes. Other similarly one-dimensional events drawing media attention were arrests (4.5 per cent of news reports between January 2008 and January 2010), policy announcements (8 per cent), forums (8 per cent), and the release of major government and non-government reports (4.5 per cent).

The traditional notion of the media as the ‘fourth estate’ suggests that journalism is an autonomous sphere of social influence, which reports the facts honestly and even-handedly to raise the consciousness of the audience and act as a force for social good.[3] However, studies of US media coverage have found it is anything but even-handed when it comes to reporting on trafficking in persons, with a recent content analysis citing a lack of objectivity as a chief concern.[4] The study showed the prominence given in the reports of six quality newspapers in the US, UK and Canada to official sources in favour of alternative viewpoints – such as those of academics, commentators and activists – served to legitimise the prevailing views and stifle debate.[5]

Objectivity is one of the central tenets of journalism, and the Australian media fared favourably in comparison to their overseas counterparts, with the majority of reports analysed seeking comment from both official and alternative sources. Only about 11 percent of the news reports released between January 2008 and January 2010 quote a government source without seeking a balancing comment, while 43 per cent canvassed the views of at least one person from outside what could be classed as the establishment. Perhaps reflecting the difficulty of identifying those directly involved in trafficking and the challenge of then convincing them to speak to the media, just six articles (or 7 per cent) quoted the views of victims of trafficking or their traffickers. The majority of alternative viewpoints put forward came from academics, activists and various non-government organisations.

Interestingly, of the very few foreign press articles, all quoted government or official sources exclusively in the article. Clearly the sample size is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, but it does perhaps align with the findings mentioned above that suggest an over-reliance on official sources.

Several specific limitations of these news reports are also apparent, such as the lack of reporting on trafficking in persons for forms of work other than prostitution. Many articles also cite statistics but fail to engage in any deeper investigation or critique of these figures. However, given the lack of reliable published data or detailed government reporting on the issue, some of this type of news coverage is understandable.

The quality of writing itself is generally acceptable, though several articles were sensationalist in their discussion of trafficking. As journalists from all mediums seek to capture the reader’s attention, headlines and lead paragraphs in particular often employ the use of buzz words such as ‘sex slaves’, and emphasise the lurid nature of the sex industry, organised crime, and slavery, rather than providing a balanced contemplation of factors such as the driving forces behind the trafficking of persons. The use of the phrase ‘sex slaves’ to describe victims of trafficking is often inappropriate, as it fails to reflect the complexity of the employment, debt bondage, and consent issues involved in trafficking. Further, the tendency of the media to report smuggling as human trafficking is a concern, as it arguably confuses the two separate issues in the mind of the public. A combination of the demand for sensational stories and the limited time and space available to document this complicated problem clearly limits the ability of the media to provide more than a brief overview of the reality of the trafficking of persons into Australia.


[1]   Geoff Turner, ‘A Quantitative Approach to Quality in Australian Newspapers’ (1995) 55 Gazette (Netherlands) 140-141.
[2]   David Conley, The Daily Miracle (2nd ed, 2002) 27.
[3]   Stephen Stockwell, ‘Beyond the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Deliberation and Journalism Theory’ (1999) 21(1)Australian Journalism Review 38.
[4]   Girish J Gulati, ‘Media Representation of Human Trafficking in Three Liberal Media Systems’ (Bentley College: International Studies Department) 4.
[5]   Ibid, 11-12.