Warning: Graphic Content

The media has a strict set of guidelines for the reporting of content that viewers/readers may find distressing.  A warning is given before the story, informing consumers that the following content is graphic in nature.  These warnings are used for articles about suicide, mental illness, drug abuse and violence.  Numbers for helplines are posted at the end of the stories, urging those who have been affected by the proceeding story to seek help.  However no such warning is in place for fictional stories, either in print or film.

If I am reading an autobiography of a recovering drug addict or the memoir of a person with a mental illness then I am expecting the content to be distressing at times.  I can make an informed decision about whether I am in a safe place mentally to read the book.  However if I am reading a suspense thriller then I am not expecting to come across a graphic description of the main character harming themselves.

A few years ago I made a complaint to the ABC about an episode of Degrassi The Next Generation.  I don’t make a habit of writing emails to television studios about the shows they air because I feel that it is often easier to change the channel.  However this episode showed a teenager engaging in self harm behaviours.  This episode was aired at midday on a weekday so the target audience would have been at school.  While the show did come with a generic ‘this show deals with topics not suitable for a younger audience’ it did not have a warning about self harm content.

The response that I received from this email was that the generic warning was enough as it fit in with current guidelines.  So as long as they weren’t breaking rules, it was OK, regardless of the impact that it could have on viewers.  I wasn’t distressed about the content being talked about, but I was distressed that someone struggling with self harm thoughts would be taken off guard by this episode.

Content and trigger warnings do need to be specific.  I am in a number of mental health support groups on Facebook and only a few have rules about trigger warnings.  These are the groups that I feel most safe in because they have strict rules about specific trigger warnings.  I know that a post is talking about suicide or self harm because a warning is written before the post.

I don’t think that fiction writers need to stop writing about sensitive topics that could distress their readers but I do think that they need to specific with graphic content warnings.  These specific content warnings allows readers/viewers to make informed decisions about what they are mentally comfortable with.  It’s not about censoring, it’s about protecting vulnerable people who are possibly using reading or television as a distraction technique.

Do you think fictional stories should have content warnings?

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2 thoughts on “Warning: Graphic Content

  1. Angela

    I both agree and disagree. While I can see your point very clearly and I understand that trigger warnings are extremely important, especially to someone vulnerable to that subject, to have a trigger warning stand out enough to give sufficient information to the viewer (in the degrassi episode) could also be seen as adding to the stigma surrounding such issues. While a viewer could very well change the channel because they choose to ignore such an issue, to be caught off guard in an episode means they are faced with it and may even help break down the stigma. In life, when faced with a friend who is self harming, or having thoughts, we don’t get a warning, we have to work through it and try to help our loved one.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am all for trigger warnings and I see your point entirely. I just also wonder where we draw the line to help ease the stigma of mental illnesses as a whole and help to integrate them into such shows to help people relate and hopefully understand a little more.

  2. Alison

    Completely agree. Those who are traumatised CANNOT simply suck it up and deal with it and those who are at danger of risk should not be further endangered by insensitive people who have a choice to do better.

    We cannot avoid all dangers and triggers in life, but the media and writers absolutely CAN at least give specific warnings. It is thanks to this policy of yours that I remembered to put a specific trigger warning on the post I wrote regarding childhood abuse. When I read things like that I am back in that place and I am caued harm, all over again. I have had a lot of therapy and deal pretty well with traumatic memories, mostly. Many do not.

    Being exposed to such things can bring on ptsd and a decline in mental health, can trigger dangerous behaviours and this absolutely avoidable with a simple sentence and a little sensitivity on the part of the author/director. Why take the risk of triggering one suicide or episode of self harm when the answer is so extremely simple?

    It’s like those idiotic parents who won’t insist on a seat belt on their kidsr and make ridiculous comments about wrapping their children in cotton wool. They miss the point. There are some harms we cannot protect people from and are forced to deal with.

    All the more reason we have a duty to protect them from those we can, if we can.

    The problem once again lies with being unable to see the suffering of mental illness. If I was to punch someone on their broken arm, I would be considered a terrible person and this would be abuse. But when another person smacks me on my ptsd and traumatic memories, nobody can see the terrible harm they are doing and they can even pretend they are really just helping me toughen up.

    No. Pain and suffering do not toughen anyone up. You cannot desensitise someone to mental illness by exposing them to further trauma.

    We are NOT asking people NOT to show or publish the content but simply take 2 seconds to warn those who have a right not to suffer any further. Don’t lecture. Don’t tell them how to feel. Just accept that is how they feel and do the right – and very easy – thing.


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