Sex trafficking, like any other illegal activity, is extremely difficult to quantify. If we could tell you exactly when, where, and how it happens, it would be far easier to eliminate.

As a result, media, nonprofits, and concerned people often just use the most dramatic statistics, regardless of accuracy. Exaggerations or even misstated information and statistics can trigger widespread skepticism about the nature of the problem and about those working to prevent it.

The internet has been abuzz lately with accusations and fights about reporting on sex trafficking. Recently, CNN drew fire for reporting that between 100,000 and 300,000 American girls were lost to sex slavery.

The Village Voice questioned this statistic, and a fight broke out that spread around the blogosphere, involved Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, and generated a great deal of scrutiny on the whole antitrafficking movement.

There are two main things to keep in mind as we respond to this controversy. First, that numbers are not at the heart of what we do. People are. So whether 300,000 or 3,000 or 3 girls are being trafficked, it needs to be stopped. It is important to speak to the human cost, the stories, and the wounds left by trafficking.

Second, we must use verifiable information when drawing attention to this and other hot-button issues. It’s important that those involved in fighting abuse and exploitation in America and around the world present clear information and explain how we came to the numbers we’re using.

For instance, here is a better way to state the fact that CNN was probably referring to:

A study funded by the Department of Justice states that there are  244,000 American children and youth estimated to be at risk of child sexual exploitation, including commercial sexual exploitation, in 2000.

(Source: Estes, Richard J. and Neil A. Weiner. The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in  the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work: 2001.  Study funded by the Department of Justice.)

If we can focus on what is known, and avoid employing misleading or ill-stated data, we can establish the kind of trust that leads to long-term engagement and widespread change.