As trigger warnings have grown in prominence, more and more newspapers have had to confront if and when they should be employed. This is a decision the Chicago Maroon faced recently when some readers asked us to add a trigger warning to one of our online articles (“Hackers accuse student of creating Hyde Park List” [9/24/14]). After some discussion, the paper decided to add a trigger warning, a decision that we, the news editors, disagreed with. We are writing, as news editors responsible for the news content of a paper, to express our opposition to trigger warnings within all newspapers, because of their subjective nature and potential to be abused to limit free speech.
Trigger warnings, the New York Times explains, are “explicit alerts that the material [people] are about to read or see… might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” The majority of trigger warnings are applied to mentions of sexual assault or intense violence associated with war. We do not have an issue with these types of warnings per se- they can indeed prevent victims of trauma from unneeded suffering. As we will explain later, though, we question whether their value outweighs the problems they will likely cause.
Trigger warnings have been expanded, however, to also apply to instances of racism, sexism, and general violence, among other things. One student at Rutgers University suggested that a trigger warning be applied to The Great Gatsby for “gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence.” It is these types of warnings that we strongly oppose. In these cases, it becomes extremely unclear when a trigger warning is warranted and when it is not. Thus, the decision on whether or not to add one becomes a point of contention in and of itself, turning into a proxy for where reasonable opinions end and bigotry begins. In this way, trigger warnings are inherently subjective. As news editors, we always strive for objectivity. We try to separate ourselves, our personal thoughts, and our beliefs from the issues we cover. It would be impossible for us to objectively decide if something described in one of our articles is racist, ableist, or anything else that might warrant a trigger warning.
These expanded trigger warnings seem designed not to prevent unneeded suffering, but rather to censor dissenting opinions. In this way, they have become part and parcel of the movement amongst many on the left to limit free speech to what is seen as acceptable and decent. Of course, trigger warnings do not restrict people from saying anything, but they inherently label what is said as bigoted and leave no room for readers to form their own opinions. Imagine, for example, a conservative Op-Ed on welfare policy hit with “trigger warning: classist.” In this attempt to police who should hear what, we end up more comfortable but entirely unchallenged. In protecting people from the racists and sexists and bigots, we also end up “protecting” ourselves from those people who may have something controversial to say but whom we may benefit from hearing.
Newspapers aim to advance free speech and open discussion, and give people the tools to engage in the world around them. We oppose these types of trigger warnings in newspapers because they are antithetical to the very mission that all newspapers were founded upon. Especially at the University of Chicago, where free and open inquiry is so highly encouraged and valued, we should not attempt to subjectively filter the news around us, no matter how upsetting it is.
If we are opposed to the expanded trigger warnings that we discussed earlier, but not the original warnings themselves, why not advocate an editorial policy determining that trigger warnings will only be used for clear descriptions of sexual assault or war? The problem with this approach is that it is not obvious what constitutes a “clear” description. Lets look at the Maroon for an example. Was the article that inspired the trigger warning really a “clear” description of sexual assault? The water has already been muddied—we can very easily imagine scenarios, regardless of what policy exists, where people abuse the claim that an article describes sexual assault or violence to advance their own agenda. Trigger warnings do serve a purpose in certain circumstances. But they are simply too liable to be abused to restrict speech for them to be worth putting in newspapers.
As news editors of the Chicago Maroon, we promise to always be willing to report on important news, no matter how uncomfortable or awful it may be. We hope that editors and writers of other papers will join us in this pledge. We sincerely hope that the trigger warning in the Maroon is an outlier, rather than a harbinger of things to come.