Media, U.S. Government Give Wildly Different Human Trafficking Data


A State Department report in 2013 estimated that as many as 27 million people are human trafficking victims at any time; the same report a year later used the figure 20 million. The Washington Post’s fact checker says the numbers involved in trafficking are “dubious.” (A so-called Global Slavery Index gives the estimate at 35.8 million.) The Post says “the numbers can vary dramatically depending on the definition — and increasingly, the definition has been stretched.” In what American University law professor Janie Chuang calls “exploitation creep,” trafficking over time has been recast to include all forced labor, even if a person does not change location, and then has been relabeled as “modern slavery.”

Clearly there is a problem with the numbers when the U.S. government cites a figure of 20 million and a well-funded, media-savvy organization touts a figure of “slaves” that is almost twice as high. The Post says “media organizations are complicit in fostering misperceptions by often citing these figures as established fact, without even an explanation or examination of the methodology. The numbers grow or shrink depending on the definitions that are used, and yet media reports rarely examine that aspect.”

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