My hope from these stories is that readers realize that people, largely women, are being trafficked right where they live, work and or play.

– CNS Reporter Courtney Mabeus

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – When Maryland state officials failed to follow through on their promises three years ago to collect and share evidence about human trafficking from “every part of government,” Merrill College’s Capital News Service (CNS) decided to do its own examination of the problem. Student reporters pored over thousands of pages of police records, prosecution data and court files. The investigation found widespread evidence of human trafficking but few convictions.

The deeply-reported project is called “The Brothel Next Door: Human Trafficking in Maryland.”

“This story revealed something important about the DMV area and our nation in general,” said CNS reporter Katie Secret. “Human trafficking is prolific – and not in the ‘conventional’ forms that many citizens previously believed it to be. Trafficking has taken a more sinister form through deception and false trust, one of the many reasons our government and authorities are unable to quantify and adequately tackle the trafficking problem.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.40.48 PMA Collaborative Effort

Supported by a grant from the state’s MPower initiative and faculty support from the Baltimore Sun and the Abell Foundation, the human trafficking investigation was produced by students across a number of Merrill College classes:  students in Professor Sandy Banisky’s Baltimore urban affairs reporting capstone, Associate Professor Deborah Nelson’s investigative reporting capstone, reporters working out of the CNS Washington Bureau and media law classes taught by Nelson and Professor Diana Huffman.  Approximately 90 students worked on the project using a wide range of journalist tools including video, audio, big data, web and graphic design and good old shoe leather.

“For me, the biggest take-away is the importance of actually going to the area you’re reporting on and talking to the people who live in the community,” said student Ana Mulero. “People won’t necessarily be eager to talk to you about the prostitution and trafficking problem in their community but with patience and persistence, you can accomplish a lot. Nobody in Langley Park wanted to talk to us about this topic at first. But after consulting other people like Prof. Deborah Nelson, we were able to reframe our approach and get people to open up to us.”

The value of working on a project like this “absolutely makes a difference,” said Merrill student Jon Banister, who is also a senior staff writer for the Diamondback student newspaper.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.41.13 PM“When you talk about an issue like human trafficking, it’s something that people may have heard of but most really have no idea of the true nature of the crime or how often it happens in our area. Sure, the vast majority of people read about heinous things like human trafficking and cringe for a moment only to move on with their lives. But all it takes is one person to be inspired by a story about a trafficking victim and take action, maybe by volunteering at a local help center or even deciding to pursue activism as a career, and it can save lives. In addition, reporting on the faults of local police departments, state prosecutors and politicians  can put pressure on those officials to act quickly and put stronger policies in place to help curb human trafficking. The most fundamental roles of journalists in society are to shine light on injustices that remain hidden from public eye, and to keep a check on those in power and hold them accountable for the results of their actions,” he said.

 The Impact on Young Reporters

Student Katie Secret says working on this project “renewed my drive to produce meaningful stories and my commitment to hard news. Seeing the tangible effects reporting can have on a community confirmed that my passion will always be investigative journalism. The Merrill College could not have better prepared me for working on this story – I felt confident talking to the likes of Department of Homeland Security agents and was not afraid to ask the hard-hitting questions prosecutors sometimes didn’t want to answer.”

Student Ana Mulero says for her, the biggest take away was the “importance of actually going to the area you’re reporting on and talking to the people who live in the community.” She adds, “Gaining insight from reporters who have years of journalistic and investigative experience was extremely valuable. We were trained on how to dig deep into the root of the problem. We were also taught how to interview people about sensitive topics like human trafficking and foster relationships with them, which gave us the necessary tools to undertake the many difficulties we encountered.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 3.41.50 PMFinally, Merrill student Jon Banister says thanks to his classes in Knight Hall, he had a solid journalistic foundation to know how to report and write stories – “but by far the most helpful in preparing me for this class was Dana Priest’s public affairs reporting class. That class also featured a semester-long investigative project in which I got to interview multiple imprisoned journalists in Turkey, as well as visit the Turkish embassy and sit down with a human rights official. These classes have been immensely helpful in teaching me how to really dig deep and find the real story and strategically organize my reporting and writing to deliver the best finished pieces.”

About Capital News Service

The Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. For 25 years, CNS has provided deeply reported, award-winning coverage of issues of import to Marylanders.

With bureaus in College Park, Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists, CNS delivers news in multiple multimedia formats via partner news organizations, a destination Web site, a nightly on-air television newscast on UMTV and affiliated social media channels (including Twitter and Facebook). The Capital News Service provides breaking news coverage, in-depth investigative and enterprise journalism, and serves as a laboratory for students to test and develop innovative new methods of reporting and telling stories.