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Worthington Essay Prize 2014


Content Trigger Warnings

You are the youngest member of the editorial board of Weird Austin, an online magazine that has developed a large national readership. Content in the magazine includes local and national news, fiction, personal essays, political cartoons, and regular columns  on subjects ranging from home improvement to healthy eating to relationship advice.

The magazine is also known for its unabashed writing on domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, animal cruelty and substance abuse, among other sensitive subjects. Recently, readers petitioned the magazine to include “trigger warnings” that precede each article, to caution readers that they are about to encounter material that could be traumatizing. At a recent board meeting, opinions were mixed.

“Isn’t a headline sufficient warning?” asked Don Smith, one of your colleagues. “I mean, if the headline of the story is “Suspected Rapist Arrested,” readers can decide for themselves whether that’s something they want to read, right?”

“Not always,” said Camille Pallier. “We just published a 6000-word memoir essay entitled “Why I Live Alone” that covered all kinds of upsetting subject matter—you’d never communicate all of that in a headline.”

“So what are you going to do? Have a sidebar next to each article, with a bulleted list of everything that might upset anybody?” Don asked, incredulously.

“Why not?” Camille responded.

“What if the article mentions smoking, and we didn’t put a trigger warning on it, and somebody is upset because their mom died of lung cancer? How do we decide which topics deserve trigger warnings and which topics don’t?” Don said.

As usual, the magazine’s webmaster, Erin, offered a technical workaround. “We can create an option for readers to set up user accounts where they select their preferences for what kind of content they don’t want to see—if they check the boxes for sexual assault, violence, or whatever, they won’t see any articles about those things. We could let them customize it however they want. Those stories will just vanish from their view, as long as they’re signed into their account.”

“That seems even worse to me,” Don said. “I think some people might see a trigger warning and then decide to read the story despite the potential discomfort. But if they never even see the story, you’re taking that option away from them.”

The executive editor, Vijay Murthy, noticed that you hadn’t said anything. “What do you think?”

“I’d like to think about this for a while, Mr. Murthy,” you said.

Assignment:

What are the risks and benefits of trigger warnings (to the reader, to the publication, and to society)? What editorial policy do you think the magazine should adopt?

Write your recommendation to Mr. Murthy in a memo of 1500-2000 words.


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