Do We Need Trigger Warnings On The News?

Do graphic images raise awareness or cause compassion fatigue?

By: Tori Powell

Earlier this month an explosion in Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut left more than 200 dead, 6,000 wounded, and 300,000 homeless. It devastated a country that had already borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic during an economic collapse. How much could one country take?

Ever since the 2,700 tonnes of abandoned ammonium nitrate exploded in the city’s port, news media has tirelessly covered the event, showing images of the destruction, and hearing heart-breaking testimonies from the city’s residents.

Now, as protests spread across the Lebanese capital, and Beirutis blame the government for neglect that lead to the fire, more troubling images are sure to come, as the Lebanese security forces respond to protestors with brute force, adding police violence to the backdrop of already catastrophic devastation.

It feels like one more tragedy in a world where Yemen’s humanitarian crisis hasn’t stopped for years, police violence continues to escalate in the United States and femicide still plagues countries like Turkey and Mexico. What is the impact of consuming all of this information? According to the Pew Research Center, two thirds of US media consumers report that they feel “worn out” and “fatigued” by the news this year—a claim backed up by experts, who point out that prolonged and consistent exposure to graphic media can have negative effects on one’s perception of the world around them, not to mention their own mental health.

As 2020 becomes a year of a deadly pandemic, heightened rage over police violence and now an explosion that has destroyed half a city in a matter of seconds, does the media need to include more trigger warnings to protect audiences? Do the shocking images that journalists uncover actually raise awareness, or does it instead make audiences turn off?

“People are distressed when they watch graphic imagery which can last, but it’s not always a bad thing to be distressed by horrible things that happen in the world,” says Dr. Elana Newman, Research Director for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

She believes that exposing audiences to mass disasters through media coverage is important so that those who wouldn’t have otherwise known about them can grasp the gravity of the issue. 

But by being aware of tragedies, Newman, who also is a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa in Ohio, says that there is a correlation between how much news a person consumes and symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The degree of which you are involved in that event, whether you have lost somebody or something, is a contributing factor,” she says. “People who have had similar experiences to what they see on the news are likely to be triggered.”

According to the United States National Library of Medicine, every person reacts to trauma differently, often in a way that is shaped by their own life experiences. Not every survivor will react to graphic media that reminds them of their trauma, but it is a common response. This also means that triggers, which are “any sensory reminder of the traumatic event,” differ according to each person as well.

This vast and varying group of those who are negatively affected by graphic media is the reason that documentary photographer Rachel Seidu thinks that trigger warnings are an imperative part of news coverage. Trigger warnings are statements which alert audiences that the material in which they are about to be presented with could be distressing. 

“We absolutely need warnings on graphic images to protect those that are sensitive to it but we, photographers, have to think about the pictures that we take as well,” Seidu tells Media Diversity Institute

For Seidu, who is Nigerian-Ghanaian, humanity comes before being a photographer—she feels that the way that photographers capture tragedy can frame the narratives of a community’s trauma.

“The photographers that come to document us [Africans] only come with one type of perspective, but we are more than poverty,” she says.

In her opinion, a considerable amount of photography is insensitive graphic media content, that creates more harmful narratives than awareness.

But taking empathetic photos of disasters is difficult for any photojournalist no matter the intention, and it may not be possible to please everyone while successfully completing journalistic objectives.

Afterall, without them, how would we know what is going on in the world?

“It would be great to get to the point of not requiring those images and it would be even better to get to a point where society has reformed itself and these traumas no longer exist,” said Professor Lauren Walsh the Director of the Gallatin Photojournalism Lab at New York University, pointing out that graphic images should not be required to validate tragedy and social inequality.

However, since social inequalities and other crises do exist and probably will continue to in the future, Professor Walsh says that a deep understanding of how Black and Brown bodies have historically been represented in the media is vital knowledge for journalists to study in order to prevent harmfully graphic images in their news coverage. 

“Think about the implications of how this image will affect the community that it’s representing,” Walsh says. “Show something that conveys the severity of the issue but with dignity and respect.”

And once journalists live up to their part of doing homework on the communities they cover and doing so with an empathetic eye, Dr. Newman says that a shift in terminology could be beneficial for minimizing harm on the audience’s part.

For one, she says that she doesn’t particularly like the term “trigger warning” because of the stigma that it carries and the potential to be used as motivation for audiences to want to view troubling content even more. Newman also says that it is unclear whether or not these warnings are even effective with their goals of protecting audiences. 

Instead, the doctor says that different terms such as an “alert” or “notification” for graphic media could be more effective because it still is important to give a trauma survivor control over what content they receive. She says that it is up to the journalist to specify what these updated terms look like in their coverage.

So, although the communities which are most affected by tragedies covered in the media may understand the depth of their own realities to a point that they do not need constant exposure to the horrors of the world, these images play a crucial role for those who are not aware. The perfect balance between awareness and protection is a harmony that isn’t perfect and is bound to hurt someone along the way, but in 2020, as many societal lessons on equality are being taught internationally, what we can do is approach these conversations from empathetic and sincere intentions backed with research and thought.