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Warning: This Post About Triggers May Trigger You

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or moan about a news story concerning a serial cat killer that comes with the warning: “This story contains details some readers may find distressing.”

When we have gotten to this point, we have crossed some kind of boundary in society in general, and in journalism in particular, that never ought to be crossed.

This post is not a rant against trigger warnings of all sorts and in all venues. The term “trigger” as it’s typically used in this context has a clinical history, specifically tied to post-traumatic stress disorder. The custom of pre-emptively warning against potentially triggering content arose in online forums, blogs and other support groups for survivors of sexual assault and other forms of trauma. In these settings, people often shared graphic and intimate details of their stories, which could inadvertently provoke painful flashbacks for readers. In that situation, a warning of graphic content to follow is both considerate and appropriate.

Similarly, when a television news broadcast includes bloody or frightening images, it makes sense to alert viewers that content to come might be distressing or inappropriate for children or others in the room. Allowing people the option to change the channel or turn off the program before such images appear is a simple courtesy.

Content ratings were originally developed for motion pictures, and later extended to TV programs and video games, to let consumers know when material may not be suitable for every audience. Explicit lyric labels on music do the same. Such notices allow people to make informed choices about the media they consume, at least to a point. It’s an imperfect system, but it is certainly better than the self-censorship Hollywood studios were pressured to adopt until the Hays Code finally ended in the 1960s.

In this generally benign soil, however, the weeds of today’s pseudo-censorship took root. On college campuses across America, and in many places abroad, some students demand to be alerted before being exposed to any sort of information that might shake or shatter their illusions about the world, leaving many critics to wonder exactly what it is that they hope to gain from an education in the first place. Few colleges mandate or prohibit trigger warnings in the classroom, at least so far, but the conversation – and controversy – is widespread. There is also a significant difference between an individual student privately asking an individual professor for a warning when an assignment will include, say, a description of sexual assault, and students collectively demanding warnings before a concept such as classism is ever mentioned on behalf of some hypothetical peer.

As bad as the trigger warning fad on college campuses might be, however, it is vastly more corrosive when it makes its way into the world of journalism. The whole point of reporting the news is to let the audience absorb information and interpret it for themselves. When journalists begin to worry about controlling the outcomes of their reporting, the editorial function has morphed into something else. Attempting to shape reader reactions to the news is exactly the sort of control that responsible journalists ought not to exercise.

Can you imagine a trigger warning in front of pictures of police turning dogs and fire hoses on civil rights marchers in Alabama in the ‘60s? Or in front of the first newsreel reports of what Allied soldiers found when they liberated Nazi death camps? Did the BBC, which gave us the trigger warning for the man killing suburban pets, include similar language when it reported on the country’s travails during World War II?

The nation that rallied behind Winston Churchill and King George VI to defend its homeland surely still possesses the intestinal fortitude to deal with news about a cat killer in their midst. The BBC sells its audience, and its journalism, short when it suggests otherwise.

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