Does the Trigger Warning Have a Place in the Mass Media?

Anyone reading this probably has a sense of what a trigger warning is, but in case you don’t, it’s a brief note that some writers choose to place before materials that pose a risk of negative psychological repercussions for the reader. Subject matter such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and self-harm all pose numerous emotional risks for people with experience with these traumas. A warning will typically read something like “Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault.”

On a blog, trigger warnings essentially give readers a chance to stop and decide whether they’re emotionally ready to read a particular piece. Could this format translate to the mass media?

Trigger warnings are especially popular on blogging sites like Tumblr and Feministing, but have yet to gain any major attention outside that realm. Even within the blogosphere, they’re not without controversy. They’ve been used for years, but there isn’t any real agreement on the best way to write a trigger warning, exactly what content should be preceded by one, or even whether they’re effective. So I may be jumping the gun a little by suggesting that it’s worthwhile to explore the expansion their use into television, film, and print, but I think it merits consideration.

The closest thing in major American mass media to a trigger warning is the “Viewer Discretion” advisement that appears before television programs with violent or sexual content. These, of course, don’t exactly have the same purpose at heart.

By bombarding the senses, television and film are particularly powerful media for risking the kind of psychological reaction that trigger warnings serve to prevent. Again, trigger warnings aren’t just about trying not to upset or offend someone: it’s an issue of personal safety. When used on blogs, trigger warnings are a courtesy extended to readers as a means of protecting them.

The fact that trigger warnings are a matter of common courtesy, rising to ubiquity in the internet’s typical grassroots way, leads one to wonder if, and how, they could be regulated in the mass media. Should networks, publishers, and studios decide for themselves whether to use them, or this a matter for FCC and MPAA involvement?

And where do trigger warnings belong? How should they look and be written? How do we keep the term and concept from being misused and misunderstood?

Please leave your comments!


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