REAL JOURNALISTS DO REAL RESEARCH
This week the Village Voice continued its 'investigative' series on the issue of sex trafficking in the U.S.. Framed as a hard-hitting expose
uncovering the 'truth,' the series merely serves as thinly veiled
editorials with a clear objective -- to disprove the existence of sex
trafficking in the U.S. and to discredit those who have criticized
online sites that make it easy to buy and sell youth. Starting with this end point in mind and working backwards (generally not the best tactic when you're 'investigating' an issue), the Voice has now engaged in the very behavior its accusing advocates of.
The entire thesis of the Voice article, and an excuse for a CNN-style interactive map, is based on data from various police departments
throughout the country, (which in a disclaimer at the bottom the Voice admitted was sometimes incomplete). Given the Voice's focus last year on police numbers in the investigative series by Graham Rayman, "The NYPD Tapes", that documented the downgrading and dismissal of crimes to bump their statistics, including most shockingly a woman whose rape case was
downgraded to forcible touching, I was perplexed to see the Voice now hold up police statistics as the gold standard for accuracy on an issue.
There are a many reasons that numbers from arrest data do not
accurately reflect the scope of the problem. First, police departments consider this a victimless crime and often put few resources into addressing it. One sergeant on the West Coast told me that his unit referred to picking up girls on the street as a "trash run." Second, youth in the commercial sex industry are frequently taught/trained to lie about their ages. While police may sometimes suspect that someone is a juvenile, processing an adult is far easier and therefore the path of least resistance. Third, many exploited youth are arrested on charges other than prostitution -- things like weed possession and petty larceny. Or in the case of girls, they are charged with status offenses, particularly running away. Finally the glass half-full view is that with the emphasis on training and awareness so that first responders can
better identify victims, arrests are beginning to drop. According to the Seattle Post Globe, last year police recovered 80
minors who were victims of commercial sexual exploitation in contrast to the yearly average of 14 arrests of minors on the Voice's interactive map.
Given those common sense factors which automatically skew police data, I was even more surprised to then read the following quote which was presented as bolstering the case. "The Seattle Police Department totally have a handle on the situation and understand the problem," says Melinda Giovengo, executive director of YouthCare, which runs a live-in shelter for underage prostitutes in Seattle. "That seems to be a very accurate count and is reflective of what the data shows."In any other story about any other issue in the Village Voice, a source that claimed that the police were in full control of an issue would be framed as questionable at minimum. Particularly in a newspaper that has done multiple stories on law enforcement and cases of corruption and brutality. In this piece however, the quote is presented as fact, without any irony or skepticism.
There is a small but growing number of cops throughout the country that are working diligently on this issue, that are sensitive to exploited youth and that really understand the problem. Even those cops would laugh at the idea that any police department 'totally has a handle on the situation.' The handful of police who are truly committed to these victims talk about how challenging these cases are, how few services there are to support victims and how little support they receive from their superiors and fellow officers.
What also perplexed me was the idea that a service provider working directly with these children would actually believe that these very low arrest numbers represented the scope of the issue. Apparently Ms.
Giovengo doesn't believe that as seen in an op-ed written for the
Seattle Times on June 5, 2011 she states "As former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith indicated in a recent Seattle Times article... well more than 100,000 girls and boys are sexually exploited in this country each year. If you imagine that translates into small numbers here, don't. Seattle bears the shameful distinction of having one of the highest rates of child prostitution in the nation... A 2008 study estimated there were 300 to 500 prostituted youth in King County. The most frequent age of entry reported? Around 14 or 15. Some were young as 11... Meanwhile, Seattle estimates there are up to 1,000 homeless youth here every night. Judging from what we're seeing at YouthCare and its peer organizations, this estimate needs to be raised."
Unless Ms Giovengo has had a significant change of opinion about the numbers of exploited children in Seattle in the last few weeks, it would appear that her quote for the Voice is either out of context or perhaps she misheard the question. Nevertheless, the advocate who the Voice claims to support their numbers from law enforcement actually supports the numbers that the article is trying to disprove. In fact, as the crux of the whole article is about the idea that numbers can be used to mislead people particularly when there's financial gain involved it's almost comical that the Village Voice would use unreliable statistics and quotes and put a heavy spin on them to discredit critics of its profit-making site Backpage. What's that saying about glass houses and stones?