Trigger Warnings Don‘t Work: Should The News Stop Using Them?

A recent meta-analysis looked at the research around trigger warnings. The conclusion: They don't work.

Trigger Warnings Don‘t Work: Should The News Stop Using Them?
Photo by Ryoji Iwata / Unsplash
This post contains information that might disturb you.

Trigger and content warnings like the one above have become more frequent in the last few years. Regarded by many as an effective tool to prevent people with traumata from reliving their pain and anxieties, they indeed seem well-intended.

But here's the problem: Trigger warnings don't work.

I recently stumbled over this meta-analysis that collected the findings of several studies on the effectiveness of trigger and content warnings. The research's findings are surprising:

This meta-analytic review suggests that trigger warnings–statements that alert viewers to material containing distressing themes related to past experiences–do not help people to: reduce the negative emotions felt when viewing material, avoid potentially distressing material, or improve the learning/understanding of that material.
However, trigger warnings make people feel anxious prior to viewing material. Overall, results suggest that trigger warnings in their current form are not beneficial, and may instead lead to a risk of emotional harm.

Phew, that's some news.

Categorising Contexts

There are different kinds of settings and types of warnings that could (maybe should) be distinguished. Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, suggests the following categories on his blog:

  1. Warnings of content likely to be disturbing to many people in the audience.
  2. Warnings of content that may trigger post-traumatic stress responses.
  3. Warnings of obnoxious, offensive, disagreeable, or dangerous ideas.

Cohen also recommends on when to use warnings, and it's only the first category. In cases of violent imagery, for example, he thinks that "in these cases, a warning of the impending discourse is something like common courtesy."

Nevertheless, Cohen also nuances his suggestion as there are settings where content warnings seem optional:

A horror film can be expected to surprise you with specific acts of violence, but you know something bad is coming; a sociology class on racial inequality should be expected to include discussions of lynching, a history documentary on war is expected to show people being killed.

What About The News Media?

In line with Philip N. Cohen's argument, the news is a context where sensitive topics occur. In my years as a journalist, I've experienced many debates around content warnings and notes. In every job, there has been at least one discussion about whether we can show specific graphic images or not.

Especially cautiously treated, for example, are reports about suicide. In the rare cases when reporting is done, the stories are accompanied by a textbox that provides information about organisations that offer help.

Example of an information box. Screenshot:

These media ethics discussions are essential and should be held more publicly rather than contained in the newsrooms. The Swiss Press Council has many directives that specifically address war, crimes, and suicide reporting.

Despite all existing guardrails, the meta-analysis' findings lead to the simple question:

Should The News Get Rid Of Trigger Warnings?

First, we have to cover some basics.

On one side, you could argue that reality isn't all rainbows and unicorns. The media has to report accurately, and violence, death, crime, and war are a part of it.
Moreover, shocking images can trigger political or societal action and raise awareness drastically. Here, the photos of refugee boy Alan Kurdi and, more recently, images from the war in Ukraine come to mind.

Shocking images of drowned Syrian boy show tragic plight of refugees
Young boy found lying face-down on a beach near Turkish resort of Bodrum was one of at least 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach Greece• Warning: this article contains images that readers may find distressing

On the other side, news media also have to report responsibly. They are responsible for protecting the dignity of the people depicted and their audiences, at least to a certain point. Simply publishing graphic content for the spectacle's sake is blatant sensationalism.

A quick side note: Bad news is generally good business for click-driven platforms due to the way our brains are wired. Cecille Ahrens, clinical director of Transcend Therapy in San Diego, explains:

"We are evolutionarily wired to screen for and anticipate danger, which is why keeping our fingers on the pulse of bad news may trick us into feeling more prepared."

However, Ahrends adds that the feelings of fear, sadness, and anger triggered by negative headlines can keep people stuck in a "pattern of frequent monitoring," leading to worse moods and more anxious scrolling—also dubbed "doomscrolling".

However, as the research suggests, placing a trigger warning in front of a story about rape or domestic violence doesn't prevent victims from reliving their horrible experiences.
And putting content warnings or blurring graphic images often seems like a fig leave to avoid the necessary debate around what news should and shouldn't show.

It also remains true that more and more people avoid the news entirely because of its negativity. They feel that, as described in the side note above, it impacts their mental well-being. They avoid the context that might trigger anxiety and distress, which can be interpreted as responsible behaviour. The Digital News Report 2022 found:

The proportion of news consumers who say they avoid news, often or sometimes, has increased sharply across countries. This type of selective avoidance has doubled in both Brazil (54%) and the UK (46%) over the last five years, with many respondents saying news has a negative effect on their mood.

But if people avoid journalism because of its negativity, it cannot provide its societal function of informing the people and enabling democratic discourse. So yes, the news should probably get rid of trigger warnings. First, however, newsrooms need solutions to create an environment that people aren't avoiding.

Alternative offerings like the photo-free reporting on the war in Ukraine by Swiss news website "Watson" could be a possible step.

Now, what do you think about the findings on trigger warnings? Are you a fan of these warnings or not? Should news media stop using them?

Let me know your thoughts in a comment below or reply to the email.
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