Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Debunking ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’

Effective outreach changed how the media reported on ‘sex trafficking’ for the 2018 Super Bowl. Will the lesson stick?

Lauren Martin Annie Hill
21 January 2020, 8.00am
An Eagles fan celebrates at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. MN.
Lorie Shaull/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-sa)

Over the last decade, media coverage of the Super Bowl has linked it to the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation. Between 2010 and 2016, 76% of US print media stories reported a causal or correlative link between the Super Bowl and ‘sex trafficking’. However, local reporting on the 2018 Super Bowl, hosted in Minneapolis, Minnesota, differed dramatically. Nearly 70% of Minnesota’s print media stories presented a sceptical stance toward the fear around ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’.

So, how did this shift in coverage occur in Minnesota?

How to host Super Bowls: anti-trafficking preparations and action research

In 2016, an Anti-Sex Trafficking Committee, comprised of more than 100 representatives from law enforcement, social services, business and civic sectors, convened to prepare Minneapolis for an anticipated increase in trafficking for sexual exploitation. Anti-trafficking stakeholders asked our research group at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) to examine the available evidence on major sporting events and ‘sex trafficking’ and to analyse US media coverage of past Super Bowls.

In creating our partnership, we all agreed to an action research approach in order to build trust among diverse stakeholders and ensure that evidence was clearly conveyed to the media. Action research values the knowledge and experience of all participants, co-constructs research questions, and fosters shared meaning-making to produce practical knowledge that can drive action. Anti-trafficking stakeholders wanted their efforts to be evidence-based because they felt that action premised on past campaigns or inaccurate information would not reduce harm or help victims.

‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’ as reported by the media is not empirically supported.

Empirical evidence and US media

The UROC research group conducted an extensive review of academic articles published between January 2005 to June 2016 on major sporting events and trafficking for sexual exploitation. After reviewing the research, we concluded that available evidence does not support a causal or correlative link between Super Bowls and ‘sex trafficking’. Based on the evidence, it can be claimed that online ads for sex may temporarily increase in tandem with various large events, such as consumer trade shows or boxing matches, but this claim must clarify that ads are used as a proxy measure for trafficking and should not be understood as the same thing. Thus, our main finding was that ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’ as reported by the media is not empirically supported.

We also reviewed print media to ascertain whether empirical evidence can be embedded in news stories and, if so, how. Three main themes were identified in the 2010-2016 sample of US print media. First, as mentioned above, 76% of stories posited a causal or correlative link between Super Bowls and ‘sex trafficking’. Second, stories supported the ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’ narrative by citing authoritative sources (e.g. police, politicians, anti-trafficking advocates). Third, stories circulated numbers without citation, and conflated terms like trafficking, prostitution, ‘teen hookers’, and trafficking victims.

The Anti-Sex Trafficking Committee used our findings to create a media communication strategy. The committee’s final report states it “knew media attention on sex trafficking would increase as the Super Bowl approached. Our key goal to leverage this opportunity was to communicate our core message that sex trafficking happens 365 days a year. We also sought to dispel the myth that the Super Bowl causes a huge spike in sex trafficking”. The communication strategy resulted in more than 34 million media impressions. In the action phase of this project, the UROC research group had ongoing consultation with the committee and gave print, radio, and television interviews to convey our findings to the media.

The Minneapolis Super Bowl: changing local media coverage

Print media coverage of the 2018 Super Bowl engaged the main themes listed above, but within a different frame. The majority of the 68 articles (57%) prior to the game (1 June 2017 to 4 February 2018) displayed doubt about ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’. Additionally, the eighteen stories in the two weeks after the game quoted law enforcement in ways that cast uncertainty on ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’. In total, the majority of local print coverage did not support the established narrative and its main themes. This result demonstrates a major change in media communication to the public about trafficking.

Most of the stories in the Minnesota sample characterised ‘sex trafficking’ as an activity that can happen all year rather than as something specifically tied to the Super Bowl. Indeed, 48 out of the 68 stories used the phrase ‘year round’. Fifteen stories used the phrase ‘365 days a year’ in relation to trafficking for sexual exploitation, which echoed the committee’s talking point. The point stressed the need for long-term services for sexually-exploited women instead of episodic interventions connected to big events like the Super Bowl. This type of media coverage was not restricted to the 2018 Super Bowl, but it only appeared in seven stories in the 2010-2016 sample. Increased use of this frame underscores the impact of the committee’s efforts to influence media coverage to more closely match evidence gathered by our research group.

In the absence of evidence, the ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’ narrative influences how the public, politicians, police, and other stakeholders comprehend trafficking.

A portion of stories continued to focus on public awareness efforts and law enforcement. About a third mentioned the committee’s response plan, including the awareness campaigns ‘Don’t Buy It’ aimed at people who purchase sex and ‘I am Priceless’ aimed at youth. These stories noted plans to improve access to social services, shelter beds and street outreach, and create a more coordinated police response to target traffickers and people who purchase sex, while avoiding the arrest of trafficking victims and sex workers.

Overall, post-game coverage supported the sceptical view. It debunked claims that traffickers and men who wanted to purchase sex travelled from out of state and that women were trafficked to Minnesota for the Super Bowl. Twelve stories highlighted that men arrested for trying to purchase sex were local. They used phrases like ‘men in our own communities’ and they did not recirculate the established theme that women were ‘brought in’ from elsewhere or that traffickers ‘gravitate’ to host cities. Less frequently, stories cited law enforcement participating in myth busting, such as when a police sergeant stated, “In our operations we just didn’t find the connections to the Super Bowl”.

Building evidence-based media coverage of trafficking

In the absence of evidence, the ‘Super Bowl sex trafficking’ narrative influences how the public, politicians, police, and other stakeholders comprehend trafficking and how they choose to intervene in commercial sex markets. From 2010 to 2016, the vast majority of US print media presented sources circulating claims about sporting events and commercial sex while conflating trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation (such as economic coercion), and consensual sex work. Although Super Bowl coverage occasionally questioned this narrative, the sceptical view was drowned in a sea of stories that suggested a natural, obvious, or inevitable link.

Yet, we found that empirical evidence can be used effectively to inform media, debunk myths, and propel action. The shift in media coverage in Minnesota emerged from a partnership between researchers and anti-trafficking stakeholders. We agreed that media coverage on this topic needed to be better informed and that sensationalist stories mislead the public and harm the people whom anti-trafficking efforts seek to support. We thus co-created a media strategy based on an action research approach.

Within the context of ‘fake news’ and post-truth claims, a cross-stakeholder commitment to evidence and accurate reporting about the Super Bowl and ‘sex trafficking’ was exceptional, especially when the data contradicted a dominant discourse. Our partnership brought interested parties together with the aim of reviewing, respecting, and acting on an evidence base. This shared aim created a clear method and subsequent strategy among diverse stakeholders that resulted in a successful media intervention.

A longer version of this article first appeared in Anti-Trafficking Review issue 13.

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