U.S. Media's Failure to Set the Agenda for Covering Sex Trafficking

By Danielle Martinelli
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 4/4 |

IV. Breakdown of CNN Videos

The video clips on the CNN website could reveal if the media are powerful as suggested by the agenda setting theory. Research indicates that television news had a more immediate impact on the viewer than written articles (Hu 223). The procedure of searching the Times for stories on sex trafficking was also used on the CNN website. The results totaled 331 articles, but when only videos were selected, there were 68 videos dating back to 2005. About 22 videos were dedicated solely to sex trafficking around the world and seven that mentioned both U.S. and world problems, leaving 39 clips that mentioned the problem in U.S. for the past seven years.

The videos were almost evenly split between documentaries focused on personal stories of victims and personal advocacies. In 2011, most videos focused on special reports on the sex trafficking industry, either as a whole or as part of specific details of the industry. There were only several videos on actual arrests of pimps or Johns. CNN has dedicated a whole program, called the Freedom Project, to the problem of modern day slavery, which includes sex trafficking. Since 2011, it has been posting and uploading videos weekly to raise awareness about the larger problem of human trafficking. In early 2012, it contains videos that are also geared toward the personal stories and shocking reality of individuals who have been trafficked.

The most common type of videos on the CNN website was news, followed by personal and documentary stories, as Figure 2 shows the 39 clips that focused on U.S. sex trafficking issues.

Figure 2. U.S. coverage of Sex Trafficking in the CNN website.

Figure 2

V. The Next Step and Hurdles to Face

The New York Times and CNN have produced a small number of stories, but they have sought out and produced increasingly more stories each year on this dire issue of sex trafficking. The understanding that human trafficking as a whole exists is no longer a point of contention, but the simplistic coverage as well as the public's misunderstanding that sex trafficking does not occur in the United States is the responsibility of the media community to correct (Kloer). According to the agenda setting theory, more coverage in different manners will produce more social awareness. According to the agenda setting studies, most people will consider the problem in America to be important when it is dynamic, longer in length, is aided by personal stories, a video report is produced, and a public demonstration takes place, but a written article is better remembered.

The stories at the Times and CNN websites have been dynamic and about the issue as a whole, but didn't connect them to the personal implications nor documented public demonstrations. Kristof's opinion articles were strong and emotionally gripping, but were from one voice and were not on the front page, so they failed to give the public the salient cues they needed to know that this is a prominent matter. The other articles were mostly letters and editorials, which attracted only the readers who are seeking out the issue.

A study by Smidt (2010) correlated a public mass demonstration with the elevation of a problem to highly important, which supports the need to write about what 'real' people are doing to elevate the issue.

The hard line to walk is how to convey the issue without turning people away due to the graphic nature of the industry. The stories can help the victims, but more could have been said about the force, destructive nature and motives of the pimps. A UN study challenged the media that "the coverage of trafficking has also been naïve... the media hasn't done a good job of focusing on trafficking as an economic issue as well as a human rights issue. We haven't held corporations as accountable as we should for their connection to slavery" (Kloer). Simple awareness of the problem is starting to be covered, but the consequences, law enforcement failures and the arrest and prosecutions should be covered if the press aims to follow the agenda setting theory to bring about a social consensus. Most people read what they think affect them personally. Economic issues are relevant to most Americans and are often on the front page; the sex trafficking industry can be covered as an economic issue to gain attention from readers. The depth of the problem has yet to be felt by the press or media as a whole.

There are several large hurdles in this endeavor. The biggest one is whether the agenda setting theory is applicable when people are increasingly using the Internet. It leads to the personal selection of news, and this individualistic nature has lessened the power of the agenda setting theory and made the social consensus fall apart (Althaus 179). Everyone has his or her own cause and fight, which then facilitate new movements or non-profits, but hamper the emergence of the most prominent issues in the world. There is a lack of information here because more studies on the selective nature of the Internet potentially causing the agenda theory to lose its power have yet to be published. This does not mean journalists or the media should stop doing their job. Journalists should not to be advocates, but they are called to pursue issues and bring all the dirty details into light (Saar).

Another hurdle is how to do this without inflicting more harm or putting a girl in danger of being found by her pimp. The use of personal stories is effective, but not the only outlet to pursue. First, there is confusion on the use of terms of sex trafficking because articles use prostitution, child abuse, human trafficking and mail order brides when talking about the same issue. A UN correspondent who understands this issue mentioned that "we haven't come up with a common language, a common message or even a common goal in our reporting and coverage of human trafficking" (Kloer). Consensus on the media's part will help bring about a social consensus on the gravity of the sex trading industry in America.

The media are not fighting alone. It has been strengthened through advocates who place human rights and change at the forefront. Countless websites, non-profits and individual groups have started campaigns, awareness programs and profit shares to help end human and sex trafficking in the world. The problem is that even with these programs, sex trafficking is still on the rise and is still a non-existent issue to many Americans. The perception of illicit trade and the mobilization to confront it has not changed, and that "gap in perception—and ultimately in action—is not shrinking despite the growing daily evidence of its importance and our ineffective ways" (Naim 218). The media causing awareness in all spheres of life through front-page action and infiltrating all interest areas to show the effects of sex trafficking could help narrow that gap. It could then catch the attention of individuals, which would create a social consensus to end the demand of the industry. The fight needs to start with the men who watch, buy and sell sex. Using media that confront the demand and call to every person to do the same is the next step in fighting this awful trade and hopefully ending an unspeakable crime.

"As long as there are men who objectify women and prefer to buy sex . . . as long as there are pedophiles intent on sexual gratification, and as long as there are individuals for whom financial gain is the only concern, women and children will continue to be kidnapped and enslaved" (Parrot 35).

The media might not have the same power to set the agenda as they did in the past, but it is also not fulfilling the role to put the most important stories at the forefront, not once, but continually to enlighten the public. The media's job is harder than ever before with the advancement of the Internet, but this issue is one of the gravest injustices that humans have seen. The reports should not cease until every woman and child no longer fears being used as a commodity, but is treated with justice and equality.


The author would like to give a special thanks to Dr. Lynn Huber in the Religious Studies Department of Elon University who taught about the injustices of modern day slavery. The author is also thankful to Dr. Mandy Gallagher and Dr. Michael Frontani at Elon University for their guidance, supervision and advice in order to make the publishing of the article possible.


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