“Trigger Warnings” in the Media
An overview of current research on the use of trigger warnings in broadcast news, the effectiveness of these warnings and suggestions for future research.
Little is known about the use of trigger warnings in broadcast news. Though warnings are commonly used in news programs, radio broadcasts and other types of news programing, their effectiveness has rarely been assessed. What research has been done, and many of the studies referenced here, date back to the 1970s and 1990s, when warnings were relatively new. Findings from these studies may not be applicable to the current, digital age. However, an understanding of the use of advisory and content warnings in past decades can still inform the current debate about trigger warnings.
What is a trigger warning?
The terms content warnings, advisory warnings and trigger warnings are often used interchangeably to refer to information provided about upcoming content that enables consumers to make educated decisions. This use is incorrect. Typically:
- Advisory warnings are used to warn parents of content they may not want their children to consume (Bushman & Stack, 1996).
- Content warnings are used to warn viewers of content they might find offensive or graphic (nprED, 2016).
- Trigger warnings are used to caution individuals who are suffering from traumatic symptoms (Smith, 2014).
A trigger is anything that causes an individual with PTSD to experience symptoms of their diagnoses. Reminders of trauma can “trigger” PTSD symptoms which include: flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks (National Institute of Mental Health, 2016). There is an important difference between a trigger and information a person finds crude or objectionable. The former causes negative physical symptoms, the latter causes distaste.
Do trigger warnings work?
While there is little research on the effectiveness of trigger warnings, several studies suggest that when exposed to triggers, individuals with PTSD experience a larger stress reaction and are more likely to experience extreme sensitivity to possible threats than those who do not have PTSD (Gola et al., 2012; Yoon & Weierich, 2016). And while trigger warnings may be helpful for individuals with PTSD, they may be largely ignored by individuals without PTSD. (Wurtzel & Surlin, 1977).
Work by Scrimin et al. (2010) suggests individuals exposed to auditory, visual and situational triggers experience fear and feelings of unsafety. The same study found that avoidance responses, such as turning off the television, were effective coping strategies for children with PTSD. This suggests that warnings that help individuals avoid triggers may be useful.
Though research into the effectiveness of trigger warnings is meager, there is more research available on content and advisory warnings. All three warnings are utilized for different reasons but generally contain very similar messages. Information about one may be applicable to others.
Studies involving content warnings have shown mixed results. A survey completed by Wurtzel & Surlin (1977) found that only 24 percent of respondents reported being influenced by content warnings in television programs. However, warnings may still be appreciated by a larger audience. The same survey found that while 71 percent of respondents ignored content warnings, 56 percent of respondents reported that warning systems were valuable to them.
The Wurtzel & Surlin (1977) survey also found evidence of the “forbidden fruit” effect: Of the respondents who reported being influenced by television programing content warnings, 24 percent reported tuning in with “increased interest.”
Studies reviewing the effects of advisory warnings suggest they may also have the opposite of their intended effect, especially when directed at young people. Bushman & Stack (1996) found that high school students who were exposed to advisories before a film had an increased interest in violent films. Cantor and Harrison (1997) found preteen boys were more attracted to movies rated PG-13 and R when compared with those rated PG and G. They also found preteens were more attracted to television programs with a “parental discretion advised” warning than programs without the warning.
The research suggests that while trigger warnings may help individuals avoid symptoms of PTSD, similar warnings may also encourage some populations to pay closer attention to disturbing content. For this reason, it may be important for journalists to consider their target audience and medium when deciding whether to include trigger warnings.
Bushman, B. J., & Stack, A. D. (1996). Forbidden fruit versus tainted fruit: Effects of warning labels on attraction to television violence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2, 207 – 226.
Cantor, J., & Harrison, K. (1997). Ratings and advisories for television programming: University of Wisconsin, Madison study. In National television violence study (pp. 361 – 410). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gola, H., Engler, H., Schauer, M., Adenaur, H., Riether, C., Kolassa, S.,…Kolassa, I. T. (2012). Victims of rape show increased corisol response to trauma reminders: A study in individuals with war- and torture-related PTSD. Psychoneuroenocrinology, 37, 213-220.
Scrimin, S., Moscardino, U., Capello, F., Gianmarco A., Steinberg, A. M., & Pynoos, R. S. (2010) Trauma reminders and PTSD symptoms in children three years after a terror attack in Beslan. Social Sciences & Medicine, 72(2011), 694 – 700.
Smith, S. E. (2014). On the difference between trigger warnings and content notes, and how harm reduction is getting lost in the confusion: Nuance often seems to be a disappearing feature on the Internet, and this is yet another case where is has extremely harmful consequences. xojane.
Yoon, S. A., & Weierich, M. R. (20016). Salivary biomarkers of neural hypervigilance in trauma-exposed women. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 63, 17 – 25.