Gatekeeping the trigger

In October 2014, I kept a close watch on the story that seemed to have the attention of most Canadians. But at some point, I stopped reading. I no longer saw Jian Ghomeshi while I was reading about his alleged abuse — I saw someone who changed my life forever.

I could have possibly gone a day without being reminded of my assaulter’s face if the writers had at least used trigger warnings. A trigger warning (sometimes abbreviated to TW) is a brief opening to an article or blog post that warns readers of its potentially distressing content. While trigger warnings may seem like the nice thing to do, they’re not so black-and-white. Some argue that trigger warnings are not only a form of censorship, but they’re also an excuse for people to avoid confronting upsetting experiences. However, I feel this is a dangerous way of thinking that often comes from a place of privilege — and it is permeating our newsrooms.

Trigger warnings are much more prevalent on blogs, but they need to be considered more often by mainstream press. Trigger warnings first appeared on the internet as early as the 1990s, slowly making their way into Live Journal posts. Today, they’re most common on Tumblr blogs, many labelled with #tw, as well as on feminist websites that are geared toward creating safe spaces.

Trigger warnings are often referred to as "#tw" on blogs

Trigger warnings are often referred to as “#tw” on blogs

Triggers include memories of racism, rape, sexual violence, mental illness, abuse, sexism and transphobia — all of which may cause post-traumatic stress. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, having a flashback to a traumatic event makes a person feel as though the memory is happening in that moment.

For some, that moment is an unavoidable shadow you can’t shake. In that moment, I felt as though sharks were swimming in my mind, waiting for bait. I felt his hot breath inside my ear. I felt the screams failing to escape.

I know what it’s like to read the news without being reminded of these images and sounds that literally haunt me. And more frighteningly, I no longer have to imagine what it’s like having to justify my desire for trigger warnings. As a female journalist, I’ve wilted like a flower in the presence of editors who are against trigger warnings. I’ve often felt like it’s never enough to say that you want trigger warnings. People want the gory details. They want to know why.

I feel that it shouldn’t be any assault survivor’s responsibility to explain why these experiences are traumatic. When more and more women came forward with their stories against Ghomeshi, a part of me felt empowered. Within their stories, I felt that my own were validated. But journalists could have extended that validation if they had recognized that these stories of assault would trigger many of their readers.

Some writers adamantly believe that trigger warnings aren’t progressive. NewStatesman writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett argues that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cannot choose when they’ll be confronted with their trauma in reality.

“It has got to a point now where I feel women I have never met are trying to wrap me in cotton wool, and I detest that,” Cosslett writes about feminist authors who use trigger warnings. “PTSD can make you hypersensitive and hyper-aware — not qualities I see as desirable in a writer or an editor whose job is to produce words for the general population.”

This, too, is a valid concern when talking about the repercussions of using trigger warnings. But it’s also part of a journalist’s job to create content with their audience in mind. If journalists are able to create mandates based on age, gender, and location, then they should also consider how their content affects those very people. Journalists should stop talking about their demographic as if they’re just numbers and hits when they are humans with complex life-experiences that come with unpredictable triggers.

Domingo believes that journalists should see their audiences as more than page views. (Photo by Emily Joveski / Ryersonian Staff)

Domingo believes that journalists should see their audiences as more than page views. (Photo by Emily Joveski / Ryersonian Staff)

Unfortunately, these newsroom conversations turn into mislead debates. The conversation about trigger warnings, which should be about empathizing with readers and their experiences, is often turned into a debate about what’s more traumatic or what’s considered “real” trauma.

Marginalized groups most frequently exposed to traumatic experiences are rarely given a choice. Society never asks, “Do you want to be reminded today of your inferiority and place in society?” They just remind you, anyway.

Depictions of war, for instance, are often cited as more traumatic and graphic than rape. We all understand that war is unjust and traumatic, no matter where it takes place. However, other triggering experiences are stigmatized and go unrecognized as traumatic. An image of food, for instance, may seem harmless to some — but to others, it may be a reminder of an eating disorder. When journalists decide that an image of food is harmless, it sends the message that eating disorders are easy to recover from — as if it’s undeserving of a content warning.

This month,The Ryersonian staff debated whether or not an article about rape culture should be preceded by a trigger warning. Those of us in favour of using the trigger won. But despite the very real, traumatic memories that journalism can trigger, many argue that trigger warnings are “pandering” to overly sensitive readers. Real life, some argue, isn’t equipped with trigger warnings.

This mentality is insensitive to people who have experienced trauma that they didn’t ask for in the first place. Having a triggering reaction to graphic content isn’t “overly sensitive.” It’s human.

As a journalist who has faced at least one form of trauma, I feel it is my responsibility to recognize that trauma extends beyond my own. Triggers aren’t reserved to survivors of assault — they affect many people who have lived through highly stigmatized experiences. If the media dedicated more time to understanding their audiences, and their coworkers, then perhaps it is one more step to eradicating stigma.

Students: On trigger warnings

Photos by Sam Crisp

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