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.