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Critics Say Posting Prostitutes' Mug Shots Can Hurt Vicitms

Sep 24, 2014

A recent study says Ohio is taking steps to fight human trafficking by overhauling its laws.

But advocates believe there’s still much more work to do when it comes to public awareness and the media. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

After appearing near the bottom of the list just four years ago, Ohio now ranks among the top tier states when it comes to battling human trafficking and protecting its victims. That’s according to the Polaris Project—a group dedicated towards stopping the crisis it calls “modern day slavery.”

Human trafficking has been one of the only issues on which both Democrats and Republicans have consistently agreed, and part of Ohio’s progress can be contributed to the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force which was created in 2012. Its director, Elizabeth Ranade (Ron-a-day) Janis says there’s been a steady culture shift in the state’s attitude towards prostitution—raising awareness that the women and men accused of soliciting sex might be victims themselves.

Ranade Janis: “There are absolutely people engaged in prostitution who are there against their will—they’re being trafficked for one reason or another.”

And Ranade Janis says news outlets have played a big role in publicizing the issue and raising awareness.

Ranade Janis: “I’m really encouraged to see that the increased media coverage over the last few years has really brought increased awareness in the way that we talk about it and think about it. When there are prostitution busts people are quick to think ‘I wonder if there are any trafficking victims there too.’”

But Ranade Janis says there’s still a looming, complicated ethical issue for news outlets when it comes to showing video or—more specifically—mug shots of accused prostitutes.

Ranade Janis: “As we’re evolving and starting to recognize trafficking for what it is—a lot of the stories are being discussed as human trafficking rings being busted. So if a news story is going to present something as being a trafficking ring then probably a number of those women are actually victims and that changes the conversation and you need to think whether it’s appropriate to show the images of those women because if they’re victims then that’s not appropriate to show the images of those women.”

A quick Internet search using words like “prostitution ring” coupled with the names of Ohio’s top media outlets immediately brings up articles featuring a “slideshow” or “image gallery” of mug shots.

Scott Libin is the ethics committee chair for the Radio Television Digital News Association—also known as RTDNA. He says there are news stations and publications that even try to capitalize off of so-called “hall of shame” galleries which feature all sorts of mug shots—not just those of accused prostitutes.

Libin: “Well this is sort of akin to road kill you know—people—people look—they turn their heads as they pass it and it’s difficult for businesses whose revenues are built on traffic, page views, and time on site and other digital metrics—difficult for them to resist that.”

Libin’s panel is currently writing up new language for its code of ethics. Libin says the code does not prescribe certain actions for specific cases such as when to and to not show mug shots of alleged prostitutes. But they do pose guidelines to make news outlets seriously consider giving a second thought on their coverage for some subjects.

Libin: “I think most news organizations would agree—they won’t do absolutely anything for a page view or a click but the question is where do you draw the line? And if the only consideration in publishing something is whether people will look at it then I think you’ve sort of lost your moral compass.”

Ranade Janis understands that it’s a tough line to walk and agrees with the call for news leaders to consider the consequences of showing mug shots.

Ranade Janis: “I think it is a tricky freedom of speech issue and it is tricky when you haven’t determined wehther or not someone is a victim or a criminal so I think you need to have a consistent policy that shows equity regardless to—to anyone who’s involved in criminal activity.”

Ranade Janis and Libin agree on the firm stance of not showing the mug shots of minors and children involved in prostitution rings.