Social Problems: Critical Media Analysis

CJ Trowbridge

Social Problems


Social Problems: Critical Media Analysis Midterm Paper

The group I studied was Stand Up Placer which is a nonprofit working on the issue of the human trafficking of children, and the victim-centered approach to this issue. Stand Up Placer worked hard to get Placer County and its municipalities to take a victim-centered approach to human trafficking enforcement, treating the victims as legitimate victims rather than criminal prostitutes. I expect that most news coverage of human trafficking will be an attempt by cities to label themselves as serious about “solving the problem,” but not clear on exactly how to do so. I hope to see more victim-centered enforcement, but I don’t expect to.

In “All-out effort to bring human trafficking out in the open” from the San Jose Mercury News published January 7, 2014, author Nancy O’Malley summarizes the human trafficking situation in Oakland using the FBI as a claimsmaker, “The FBI has identified Oakland as an epicenter of trafficking in the Bay Area counties. The majority of exploited children are 13 to 16 years old, some as young as 11.” This age range is actually not unusual. The FBI’s choice of the word “epicenter” is interesting considering there have been only 350 prosecutions since 2005. For comparison, Placer County had 141 just last year. Furthermore, the author comments that she is shocked when she quotes local human trafficking nonprofit claimsmaker M.i.s.s.s.e.y. as saying that human trafficking numbers in Oakland are increasing; the common-grounds rhetorical strategy of an increasing danger or risk which potentially affects us all. This fact however is also no surprise; the numbers in Placer County have more than doubled each of the last few years. In O’Malley’s words, “There are two sides — supply and demand — that make sex trafficking of our children possible. Human trafficking exists because there is an endless and disgraceful demand for children for sex and traffickers fill that demand daily.”

The author talks about several policymaking steps which have been taken to move towards a solution on this issue. First, a Regional Intelligence Center has been established and is working closely with local police to maintain a high rate of prosecution on child human trafficking cases. Secondly, a public advertising campaign has been launched with the goal of using media coverage and billboards to inform people in Oakland that purchasing children for sex is a crime…. Yes really. The policy outcomes seem clear. Informing people that purchasing children for sex is a crime is an absurd way to attempt to address this problem. It’s a waste of advertising money which could be spent on enforcement. The uptick in enforcement with the backing of federal resources though does seem like it has the potential to create a positive outcome in the community. For now, the problem is still getting worse. We will see with time whether this strategy will be effective. As we will see in the next article, full enforcement of human trafficking laws is not a given, and this is one way in which Oakland is ahead of the game in addressing human trafficking.

In “’FINALLY BELIEVING’; Reports rise of human trafficking in Humboldt County; officials seek unified response, say bringing offenders to justice proves challenging,” published in the Eureka Times-Standard on August 26, 2018, author Will Houston argues a very different point. He quotes the local district attorney as a claimsmaker who shares that despite the same dramatic rise in human trafficking that we are seeing elsewhere (over 600 reports last year), Humboldt County has had only one successful human trafficking conviction, EVER. And that person is already out of prison. A claimsmaker referred to only as an “area official” says that one unique factor in Humboldt County which makes the problem of human trafficking more difficult to address is the deep entrenchment of organized crime related to the underground drug industry. The author also quotes the district attorney as blaming the victims for the lack of enforcement, “Ultimately, one of the biggest challenges is gaining the cooperation of survivors and victims that are being trafficked.” From the other side of the judicial power dynamic, Katrina Taylor is a claimsmaker who was also used as a rhetorical typifying example, having formerly been a human trafficking victim. The author quotes Taylor as saying, “one of the biggest problems is the victims themselves don’t even know they’re victims… I didn’t even know I was a victim. It wasn’t until I started hearing and seeing scenarios of different cases and people when I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’” Taylor is now working with local organizations to try to expand education about human trafficking so that victims can learn that they are victims and seek help. At an upcoming meeting of the county board of supervisors, funding will be discussed to further study the issue.

This is a pretty shocking article for me. Just a few hundred miles from Placer and Alameda counties where there is enormous enforcement and a plethora of victim resources, Humboldt county is still in the stone age in terms of dealing with the problem of human trafficking. Humboldt County is doing essentially nothing despite the fact that the problem seems empirically worse than in “Epicenter” Oakland.

Quick Meta Analysis: According to numbers taken from the article, with just 0.6% of California’s population, Humboldt County’s reported human trafficking makes up 7% of all the reported human trafficking in California, whereas Oakland has 4% of the reported human trafficking with 1.4% of the population. Humboldt County’s per capita incidence of reported human trafficking is therefore four times higher than Oakland’s, yet Humboldt county is doing nothing about it, while Oakland is labeled “Epicenter.” This seems like a very biased FBI policy which ignores the affluent white area’s HT crime rate while highlighting the poorer, blacker area’s relatively lower HT crime rate.

In “How VTAs human trafficking awareness training inspired a state Assembly bill,” The Mercury News on June 14, 2018, author Kristin Lam discusses an important new statewide bill to tackle human trafficking. The author summarizes the grounds for this policy by saying that the bill is based on important earlier work done by the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority, “ the bill aims to equip public transit workers with the skills to identify and report signs of human trafficking in and around transit systems.” Assemblymember Ash Kalra elaborates, “human trafficking… occurs along our streets or along our transit nodes and our transit system… We want to make sure we do everything we can to combat the scourge of human trafficking.” The author expands, “Through the training, they learn to recognize potential red flags: related to lack of freedom and control and poor mental and physical health. When they encounter indicators of human trafficking, VTA workers follow a protocol of who to call and what to do.” This law would apply to all public transit workers throughout California because as the Santa Clara Human Trafficking Commission’s legal services chair Ruth Taube said, “Typically the traffickers move the survivors or the victims around to different cities and counties. So I think it’s important for combating human trafficking that we have consistent training.”

This seems like an interesting and novel strategy to attack the problem in a potentially effective way. Absent from the article is any projection of how many victims could be rescued through this new program. The author does go over several other efforts at similar types of exposure around human trafficking, including mandatory pamphlets placed in certain businesses by law. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen is quoted as hedging on the effectiveness of these types of strategies, “It’s hard to get details from trafficking victims about exactly why they sought help.” This seems to indicate that the official, conscious strategy is just to throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks, without much expectation of accountability for the spending or the effectiveness of the specific methods. The warrants seem clea here, but the conclusions seem vague. It is more about doing something, than about doing the right thing.

In conclusion, my initial hypothesis was correct. None of these jurisdictions seems to know what to do about a problem that is getting dramatically worse every year, but all of them want to be seen to do something. Materially, that ranges from essentially nothing as is the case in Humboldt County with its upcoming public debate on whether to research the issue, to mandatory statewide training of all transit employees as human trafficking sleuths. I was very surprised by the way the local paper in Humboldt county seemed totally fine with the fact that there is essentially no enforcement despite a far more serious crime rate than Oakland with its “HT Epicenter” moniker. There is no clear consensus about how to address the issue. Everyone is trying something different, and none of the ideas seems to be working, as the rates are still showing ubiquitous exponential growth. It is interesting to consider the converse relationship between perception and reality in Oakland versus Humboldt. I think the public would feel more afraid in Oakland before reading these articles, and more afraid in Humboldt after reading them. It’s worth reflecting on the biases that lead us to these conclusions.