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Pulitzer Center Update December 6, 2023

Panelists at UC Berkeley Discuss Reporting on Sex Trafficking, Gender Violence

Sex-trafficked as a child, Margeaux Gray, a resident of Los Angeles, has lived with trauma-induced visual impairment, gastroparesis, peripheral neuropathy and complex PTSD for decades. Image by Isabella Gomes. United States, 2019.

For years, the U.S. healthcare system has failed to identify sex-trafficked victims in clinics and...

Image by Ethan Widlansky. United States, 2023.

“Lean into complexity,” 2019 Johns Hopkins University Reporting Fellow Isabella Gomes told students at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Gomes, a third-year medical student, writer, and public health expert, joined activist and former police officer Holly Joshi and award-winning investigative journalist Bernice Yeung for a panel about sex trafficking. Nikki Jones, a professor of African American studies at UC Berkeley, moderated the discussion.

The panel, the first event in a two-part afternoon series about gender, explored how to empower sex trafficking victims ensnared by poverty and the criminal justice, hospitality, and health care systems.

Pulitzer Center grantee Michelle Goldberg, a Pulitzer Prize winner and widely-syndicated opinion columnist for The New York Times, later spoke with Berkeley Journalism Dean Geeta Anand about progress and backlash in the context of gender.

“Trafficking,” said Gomes, “is the extreme of every social and structural determinant of health.”

Identifying the “intersections that are creating the vulnerabilities in the first place,” said Joshi, can chart a path forward where institutional treatment and definitions of victims and survivors fail to protect them. “[How we] define the issue is how the solutions are crafted,” Joshi told students.

Yeung, who wrote “Should Hotel Chains Be Held Liable for Human Trafficking?” for The New Yorker, talked about the role of businesses, like hotels, in intervention.

“If we’re interested in interventions, and moments when we can have some impact, then I think those types of [hotels] are important to look at,” said Yeung. “Whose job is it to make sure that trafficking isn’t happening? The hotel corporations could know if they wanted to know [...]. They know when people are paying in cash, they know when two rooms are rented right next to each other for a week at a time, they could know when there are high rates of calls of police service to the hotel.”

Similarly, Joshi touched on another route for intervention: “We need to hold a very high expectation of law enforcement,” she said. “We don’t want them over-policing and criminalizing survivors and we also don’t want them washing their hands of serving and protecting Black and brown 13-year-olds standing on International Boulevard [a high-volume street for sex trade in Oakland, California] every night.”


Image by Ethan Widlansky. United States, 2023.

Panelists also discussed the role of storytelling. Terminologies like “victim” and “survivor” ring more and less true for people who have been trafficked.

“If she’s in her 'victim' stage and that’s how she wants us to recognize her pain and experience, switching over to 'survivor' really quickly can be silencing,” said Joshi.

“We can help just by listening,” added Yeung, who noted that change is often incremental.

“The worst-case scenario is not that no one reads my story,” said Gomes. “It’s that it hurts the people I’m reporting and they don’t trust journalism anymore.” She added, “Be very careful about who you allow to mentor you [...], to guide your reporting.”

After a reception, Anand interviewed Goldberg on stage, who asked the audience for generosity and complexity in political speech to reverse a decades-long project of fortifying ideologies.

Goldberg sees a “collapse of a common culture” in the rift that has opened up between the left and right in U.S. politics. “It’s increasingly hard to say what the fringe is,” she said. “Is the former president of the United States on the fringe?”

“What you see on the right is an ever-greater recognition of the fact that democracy is inimical to their project,” she said. She noted that recent referenda without partisan affiliation show “overwhelming democratic support [for issues like abortion] in a small 'd' democratic sense, and a rejection of broader culture-warring attempts to reinstate traditional values.”

However, Goldberg said she has observed the left lose supporters to a “militant certainty” sharpened by COVID-19 and “the internet, [...] intense scolding, contempt for [people's] fears and economic dislocation, the singular horror that is remote schooling—feeling like they were being given orders and stigmatized for asking questions.”

People want to “hold the line” in an era often unmoored from truth, according to Goldberg. “This growing rigidity has itself a radicalizing effect,” she said.

“People feel like they can’t express themselves, they feel forced to mouth platitudes, and when they hear somebody saying, ‘Well, over here you can say whatever you want. We’re saying what you’re really thinking,’” it is alluring.

“Being out in the real world with people doing real things” can break down ideology and ease a creeping despair one often feels when online. In this way, “local news fosters trust [...] because you can reality test it,” said Goldberg. Finding ways to reinvigorate local news may help mend divisions, she shared.

“Under the rules of speech we’ve been operating under for the last six years, you don’t get to say, ‘Well, that’s not how I meant it,’” said Goldberg.

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