P/P Journalism: Trigger Warnings for the 2016 Presidential Campaigns

Written By: Kaila Philo


Photo Credit: Max Goldberg

What a year for mental health, eh?

This year trigger warnings have come under fire for, for lack of better phrasing, shielding university students from troubling topics and, thus, hindering their education.

Triggers are subjects, themes, pictures, videos, etc, that may elicit panic attacks or other terrible mental/physical consequences that are direct results of past traumas. Trigger warnings are defined by dictionary.com as “stated warnings that the content of a text, video, etc., may upset or offend some people, especially those who have previously experienced a related trauma”. Trigger warnings began as a tool for Tumblr users to feel more comfortable navigating discourse around the Internet. The purpose of these warnings is to give trauma survivors some sort of choice in what they’re exposed to; they allow them the space and time to brace themselves for the impact of what’s to come or avoid them altogether.

There have been a cavalcade of thinkpieces about trigger warnings in the past few years—including Jonathan Chait’s highly-circulated “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” for New York Magazine and the University of Chicago publicly denouncing trigger warnings in a letter to incoming freshmen—and most pundits have taken one of two sides: Yes, trigger warnings are necessary for students with traumatic pasts or no, trigger warnings are an insult to their intelligence. Somehow.

Sexual assault has also been a widely and oft debated topic lately, from the Nate Parker’s accusation (and subsequent foolish ramblings excusing himself for it) to the seemingly neverending Brock Turner mishandling. 2016 has become a year rife with discourse surrounding rape culture, for better or for worse considering this discourse has been spotty at best. So, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that sexual assault survivors are going through a difficult time seeing as they’re forced to relive their own violent experiences in order to address current events or even turn on the news these days.

This wasn’t helped by the deplorable Donald Trump, who’s dominated headlines since he announced his presidential candidacy. This week the #TrumpTapes hit the internet and began circulating at rapid speed due to one reason: He talks about how easy it is for him to sexually harass and assault women. He infamously describes how he gets to grab women “by the p***y”, among other things, and later describes this discussion with Today Show host Billy Bush as “locker-room talk”.

Ironically, this isn’t the first, nor the most offensive, statement from Trump that’s surfaced during his bid for the presidency. He’s had a history of bigotry, spanning all the way back to the ‘80s and ‘90s when he declared that “Laziness is a trait in blacks”. He even incorporated that bigotry into his political campaign by proposing that he will build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, blaming “illegal aliens” for most of America’s woes in the process and calling them “rapists and murderers” in the process, and calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, which racializes Islam whether he understands it or not. This all came to an absurd head right before the October 9th debate in St. Louis when Trump attempted to counter the #TrumpTapes by holding a press conference with the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault.

This is where journalistic ethics comes into play; how journalists write about sexual assault has also been oft debated. The International Journalists’ Network argues that journalists should refrain from sensationalizing rape, which really means not to show faces or name names, but in this day and age may need to extend to adding content warnings to beginning of their articles or crafting their headlines a bit carefully in order to avoid triggering these survivors. However, some journalists have been accused of mishandling rape coverage by refusing to use the words “rape” or “sexual assault” in their headlines.

Unfortunately, the conversation we are not having merges all three of these topics: trigger warnings, sexual assault, and Donald Trump, for Trump has wrought a new kind of sexual assault coverage that is not only front-and-center but constant, unabashed, bombarding the reader with unpleasant realities that were often saved for articles on human trafficking or celebrity rape scandals. In short, Trump has normalized sexual assault discourse like never before in his inadvertent attempt to normalize sexual assault.

I do have a personal history with triggers, as I have generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder due to a brief-ish stint with child abuse. And so, I’ve had panic attacks brought forth by triggers and I must say that those who criticize trigger warnings quite simply don’t understand what they actually protect students from. Panic attacks feel as though you’re dying despite never being harmed, or you’ve lost control of your mind and/or body for a short amount of time and can’t regain it. It makes you feel as though simply existing is cause for emergency. I’ve had a panic attack at my senior prom, in a club meeting, in my first-year dormitory at 2AM two hours from home, and each time I couldn’t control them because they were visceral attacks on my mental state. So, I’ll admit that trigger warnings have helped me quite a bit and continue to do so as I grow older and manage my anxiety better.

Sexual assault survivors, especially those personally harmed or affected by Trump or Parker, haven’t ben so lucky. It seems as though every week there’s a new high-profile rape case and the Internet breaks into a fury of discussion, much of which blames the victims for the attacks. Even our presidential election has reached new lows as Trump, Bill, and even Hillary have all had brushes with sexual assault in the past and not one of them handled it well.

Perhaps this whole election—this whole autumn—deserves one large trigger warning. Perhaps Twitter needs a “Viewer Discretion Advised” page before people open the website. Or perhaps we should finally, finally take the victims’ feelings into account when we carry out this discourse, because a rape case does not just affect Trump or Cosby or Clinton or Parker: It affects the victim most of all.


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