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By Montia Daniels, Contributing Writer

Journalists have a unique ability to gain the trust of individuals and encourage them to tell their stories. However, it isn’t always easy. Stories related to trauma and harm, like human trafficking, can be especially difficult for journalists to write about, and even more difficult for survivors to talk about.

One obstacle is distrust between journalists and survivors of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, cultivated through the classification of survivors as criminals and reporting techniques that reflect that. So how do journalists bridge the gap and help repair this relationship? Doing so offers the potential for coverage of trafficking that reflects accurately and ethically the experiences of survivors.

Emergent Space: Finding an Alternative” is a framework that was birthed from conversations about “safe spaces” versus “brave spaces” and adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. There are six elements of emergent space and emergent strategy:

  1. Has a fractal nature, acknowledging the relationship between small and large;
  2. Is adaptive;
  3. Emphasizes interdependence and decentralization;
  4. Is non-linear and iterative;
  5. Fosters resilience and opportunities for transformative justice;
  6. Continues to create more possibilities.

All these elements can aid journalists in their relationships with survivors of human trafficking, but elements one, two, and three are especially important first steps to rebuilding trust in the journalist-survivor relationship.

By fractal nature, we mean the relationship between the individual to the societal and the intrapersonal to the interpersonal. The small actions and decisions that we make contribute to and are often influenced by actions and decisions on a larger scale. We can look to the typical news-organization hierarchy as an example. The prerogatives, beliefs, and ideas of the owner often affect what and how staff writers present the news. In turn, if a staff writer produces work that reflects poorly on the news organization, that also can affect the owner. Journalists often have relationships in the community that help them identify and access sources for their publication. The fractal nature of emergent space requires journalists to acknowledge that they may be a part of institutions (including the media), systems, and communities that have caused harm to human trafficking survivors. So while on the individual level, journalists may have not caused any harm, their relationship to larger entities may promote distrust.

This is the first step, for journalists to acknowledge why there is distrust between themselves and survivors. Journalists can work on how to foster trust by utilizing a skill many journalists already have: adaptability.

Journalists are often required to be adaptable because the world they are reporting on is ever changing—along with deadlines, sources, stories, and AP style. They can also use adaptability in conversation and spaces with survivors of human trafficking. Holding space for survivors can take many forms: letting them take the lead in the conversation, probing less than one would normally, and showing compassion, for example. This facet of building trust involves being adaptable to survivors’ needs as you’re listening to their stories. Likely, this dynamic will be different from other interviews you’ve conducted—trust that it will be worth the effort and time.

Lastly, interdependence and decentralization are key in understanding the relationship between journalists and survivors.

Interdependence acknowledges that journalists are relying on survivors to tell their stories (in particular, because journalists are trained to personalize stories with quotes and anecdotes from their sources), and survivors are relying on journalists to tell their stories accurately. This reliance upon one another requires trust from both journalists and survivors. This trust can be built with decentralization.

Decentralization is when the focus moves from individuals or narratives that usually receive centralization to individuals and narratives that don’t. Survivors of human trafficking often don’t have their stories centralized at all in news coverage, or their stories are told in a manner that is victim-blaming or harmful in other ways. By centralizing the narrative back onto the lived experiences of survivors in stories and narratives, journalists can help create trust and provide a formal outlet for survivor’s stories. Centralizing this narrative can be done by prioritizing the voices of survivors, listening to how survivors see their story, and weaving this throughout their story. One example of a story that does this well is “Trafficked: Three Survivors of Human Trafficking Share Their Stories.” These stories, produced by UN Women, show how a range of labor trafficking and sex trafficking scenarios, and illustrate how they are intertwined in the stories of survivors. One key aspect of these stories is that they do not begin and end with their trauma as does so much trafficking coverage, but instead they depict survivors at various points and allow them to set the terms for their journey out of trafficking.

This technique allows for survivors to have their stories not defined by their trauma. Their stories are often complex and using emergent space can help journalists capture this complexity in interviews and through their writing. Using this trauma-informed and healing-centered engagement method, journalists can write better stories and maintain relationships with survivors. By using this method, we can change the journalistic lens from a source for a story to a person with a story.

brown, a. m. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. AK Press.
(2019, July 29). Trafficked: Three survivors of human trafficking share their stories. UN Women,

Montia Daniels is a senior at UNC-CH double-majoring in Women’s and Gender studies and Journalism and Media. A former staff writer for the Daily Tar Heel, Daniels is also a McNair Scholar and an NC Fellow. She has served in key roles on campus, including chair and co-president of the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, and is current co-president of the Campus Y. As a UNC Moxie Scholar, Daniels interned at the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA), where she helped to develop and present programming on Emergent Space: Finding an Alternative.

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