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Should we include trigger and content warnings as a feature on Missing Perspectives’ articles and social media content?

The use of trigger and content warnings is widespread. But new evidence suggests that they might be counter-productive in what they're trying to achieve, or even irrelevant to the aim of reducing distress in readers. So, should we use them or not?

Like any industry, practices that once stemmed from an original idea or thought, can become entrenched through time. A simple habit.

Trigger and content warnings started out on closed feminist forums in the 1990s and early 2000s where women with lived experience of sexual violence and domestic violence could commune online and talk together about their experiences. 

These days, adding trigger and content warnings to articles, social media posts, and other forms of information has become a widespread practice. 

As early as 2021, Jeannie Suk Gersen began to ask readers What If Trigger Warnings Don’t Work?. By 2023, Jill Filipovic came out with a stronger conclusion again, opining for The Atlantic - one of the few US magazines where each piece undergoes a rigorous fact-checking process - that she, and many others, had been wrong about trigger warnings. 

As a team, we wanted to dig into the research and rethink whether or not this practice makes sense. It’s important to note that this curiosity and conversation starts from a place where we want to respect and have empathy for our readers/reporters/audience. The question is; what is the best way to do that in regards to uncomfortable and potentially trauma-inducing topics (for example, rape, war, genocide, sexual assault, torture, mental illness)? 

How can we continue to shine a light on the darkness in the world, while contributing to a media climate of regeneration and hope rather than, well, uh, more darkness and bad vibes? 

So what does the current research show about using trigger warnings and content warnings as a mental health tool?  

Alrighty, so let’s dig into the research and evidence side of things. A meta-analysis of twelve studies on the topic found that trigger and content warnings fundamentally don’t work, and more so, they actually cause harm in many contexts. 

When we told Dr Zac Seidler, a clinical psychologist and the Global Director of Research at Movember, that we were digging into this practice, he had this to say about the research.

“The research is clear, they either don’t work or can cause harm because they actually can exacerbate anticipatory anxiety, they can trigger you, literally, they prolong the distress of negative memories, so in fact, they may well actually be harming the very people that they intended to help,” Dr Zac Seidler said. 

“The way that this has been discussed in social psychology of late is that this is a fragilisation and over-therapisation of our society. Content creators were never supposed to play this role. They were not supposed to play the role of psychologists. They were not supposed to play the arbiter of what is, or is not triggering. Triggers vary very widely for people and so it’s harmful because it is an arbitrary decision made by people who are not qualified to do so.” 

“The fundamentals of overcoming PTSD are to face your fears. A trigger warning says to avert your gaze, and reinforces the idea that you should avoid this content, it instils fear.” 

We then asked Zac more broadly - what do you think about the current cultural conversation around trauma? Are we at risk of becoming a trauma-obsessed society, or is this a necessary and healthy thing? 

“We’re not at risk, it’s happening. It’s funny, because there are circles of psychologists and psychiatrists who talk about it, but we have to do it in secret because it is kind of triggering society,” Dr Seidler said. 

“But we are moving in the wrong direction. We are infantilizing and fragilising society through the over-therapisation of everybody. I mean look at the Jonah Hill story - the weaponisation of language like boundaries, like self-care and trauma is thrown about the way people used to misuse ‘I feel OCD’ or ‘I feel schizophrenic today.” 

Dr Seidler is pro-vulnerability, pro-sharing your story, and says that triggers are 100 per cent real. But he is also pro-resilience, and all about helping people find a way through tough experiences. 

As a feature, he thinks trigger warnings have been used to absolve content creators of responsibility to be safe and respectful in the content that they create. It should be the opposite. Don’t blindly add trigger warnings, rather, but spend more time thinking about use of language and imagery, and provide adequate supports. 

Psychologist and head of Flow State Space Rashida Dungarwalla added that it’s important to distinguish a therapeutic context from a media context.

“I think what maybe a large part of people are not aware of if they’re not in therapy is regulating emotions through distress tolerance and gradual exposure to the things that might trigger you - in a safe space, with a therapist, who is trained to be with you through that process - is a large part of how I practice,” she said. 

“If we’re doing all this work in the therapy room to show that we can tolerate distress, but then we’re never exposed to it outside the therapy room, or you know that there will be trigger warnings on things, it’s almost like being shocked again when you come across that material."

"I know some reports out there note that actually seeing a note ‘trigger warning’ can heighten our experience of what we’re about to read. And it can act as a point of avoidance, which is exactly what we’re trying to avoid.” 

Two advocates with lived experience we spoke to at an Our Watch webinar called “Deepening reporting practice to prevent violence against women and girls with disabilities starts in 1 day” held a different view to the clinical psychologists about the usefulness of content and trigger warnings, whether reporters should use them, and whether they’re triggering in themselves.

Tess Moodie is a queer, non-binary First Nations person with multiple forms of disability and has experienced multiple forms of family and sexual violence. 

They are passionate about empowering people with lived-experience to bring systemic change and embedding lived experience in the prevention of family, domestic and sexual violence, LGBTIQA+ activism and advocating for disability rights. 

“I absolutely believe that a content warning should be at the beginning of an article for a couple of reasons. For other people who’ve had an experience of violence, it flags to them that there could be content ahead that’s distressing so you choose whether to read ahead or not. [Having a content warning] is a trauma-informed practice. Having a content warning there also just acknowledges to everyone in general that this is something that could be distressing. It is informed consent,” Tess Moodie said.  

Kat has been a local queer and disability advocate & community builder in the ACT for the last ten years. They are currently the CEO of Women With Disabilities ACT and a Board Director of Women With Disabilities Australia and of Youth Coalition of the ACT.

“It’s a misunderstanding that reading a content warning may inadvertently trigger someone. Reading content that they’re not warned about is even more harmful and content warnings are pretty common nowadays,” Kat Reed said. 

What does the Missing Perspectives audience think? 

We want to listen to, understand, and respect our audience. 

That said, it’s on us as media content creators to make decisions about how best to share stories, and not fall prey to audience capture, where what an audience thinks or feels is best pulls creators in that direction whether or not it is the right thing to do. 

We asked the Missing Perspectives Instagram audience - ~17k people although obviously not everyone responded to the poll - do you think we should use trigger warnings on Missing Perspectives and M-Power articles/social media content? 

➡️ 73 per cent said YES, 27 per cent said NO.  

We then asked people: what do you think in general about the use of trigger and content warnings on articles, posts and comments? (Bear in mind Instagram isn’t great for high context answers BUT we LOVED hearing what people had to say) 

➡️ “They should be everywhere and used as a standard.” 

➡️ “Not as essential as having contacts for support services eg Lifeline” 

➡️ “It’s a responsible thing to do. IMO anyway.” 

➡️ “I think they’re overused and diminish people’s resilience to things.” 

➡️ “Prefer content or sensitivity warning to trigger warning.” 

➡️ “It’s just considerate ... I don’t personally need any warnings but endorse the practice.” 

➡️ “It keeps people uninformed and creates fear about topics that need to be addressed by adults.” 

➡️ “People have lost their minds, no critical thinking skills.” 

➡️ “I think it is a simple adjustment that can help improve accessibility to people with PTSD/other anxiety.” 

➡️ “Sometimes they’re great but I find I keep reading even if I see one and know it may trigger me.” 

So even though the broad consensus from our audience was for the use of trigger warnings, there was quite a bit of nuance in the open-ended responses. 

What does the Missing Perspectives team think? 

NG: I’m all for practices that help to make people safer, happier, and more sane. I think it’s our responsibility to work out what those are, and there’s obviously discernment required. 

Years ago, when editing a Sex Ed blog on Tumblr, I put trigger warnings and content warnings across all of our articles, and I believed that we were doing the right thing. So I do appreciate the headspace from which this feature is viewed as a no-brainer. 

However, in light of the research, I don’t think we should use trigger or content warnings at Missing Perspectives. While well-intended, they cause unintended consequences for readers/reporters/audience.

If and when a story goes into intense material - and we have a few in the pipeline - we’ll talk to the right people about how best to approach it. That may mean including some content advice, it might not.

I think we are better off expending mental and emotional energy on ensuring that a story isn’t gratuitous, that it is being shared in the right context for the right reasons, for example, to help our readers gain insight into perspectives beyond their own, to generate compassion, or to develop some kind of wisdom about the world.

AV: For many victim survivors (and otherwise), trigger warnings are helpful. As a journalist and editor, I’m inclined to include a trigger warning at the start of an article containing content that may be sensitive and triggering to some readers. While there is the argument by some that including a trigger warning may inadvertently trigger someone initially, I would still proceed to include the trigger warning, as that reader at least knows not to read the piece further, and therefore potentially less traumatised than they could’ve been if they had gone ahead and read the piece without being alerted first. 

I understand some psychologists’ views of ‘pro resilience’ exposure therapy, but I believe that should be done with the guidance of one’s therapist or mental health expert, and not at the discretion of digital publishers. Not every reader is ready to be ‘resilient’ in all circumstances, and I don’t believe it’s our place to decide when they’re ready to do that.

HD:  As someone with significant and pretty life-impacting mental illness, I strongly disagree with Dr Seidler’s view that exposure is a healthy way to exercise and engage in recovery. However, I do agree with the idea that many media outlets use trigger and content warnings as something of a box to be ticked, a band-aid to use that allows them to wash their hands of the need for responsible, emotionally safe and nuanced reporting.

PS: I think because of the majority Yes vote on our Instagram survey with readers, we should continue to use them, particularly around sexual assault and abuse.