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Writer Wednesday: Content Warning Pros & Cons

Good morning authors and welcome to another edition of Writer Wednesday where we talk industry and craft shop. Today we are going to talk about a subject that many an author are divided on. Content Warnings, also known by the slang term Trigger Warnings, have been a hot button topic over the last few months in the author and reader community. There are few facets to this argument, from the necessity of them to labeling abuse and misinformation, to the recent issues with Amazon burying title searchability due to authors Content Warning labels.

The Basics: What is a Content Warning?

This definition is taken directly from a University of Michigan crash course on content warnings for their curriculum.

A content warning is a cautionary statement, spoken or printed, that alerts students to the delicate nature of the material about to be seen, read or discussed in class.

The more colloquial term Trigger Warning is defined by Scientific America as "statements that warn of a negative emotional response to potentially distressing stimuli" . More on that article later.

The idea of CW (Content Warnings) is to provide the consumer/student/ reader with an idea of what themes and issues lie within a text.

The Arguments

Personal Choice

One of the arguments surrounding CWs is whether they should be a personal choice of the reader or author to provide or an industry standard. There are currently several databases in the works, run by readers & curators such as the Trigger Warnings Database that attempt to offer an exhaustive listings of books and potential triggers they might contain. The site invites contributors and corrections to keep a note of fallibility and encourage users to do their own research. Many authors, notably often in the self publishing circuit, choose to provide their own content warnings in their blurbs. The idea of including content warnings, particularly from an author standpoint, is to inform readers of what they are getting into. In an industry that puts so much weight on opinion, being bashed in reviews for the content of your books over the quality of your writing can hurt you. For readers, there is an element of mental health and not being blind sided by a books contents.

The Adverse Side

Two big notable issues that have risen from the personal choice angle are, from the reader side, 1. Abuse of Content Warnings, and from the author side 2. Punishment by corporate oversight. As stated above, the Trigger Warnings Database is run by readers & curators, with links to submit corrections and listings. A few months ago, a very similar system on the new platform Storygraph ran into a very dicey issue where trigger warnings were being abused by the system to impact BIPOC authors to the point they are now considering overhauling the labeling system.

These databases require an element of good faith on part of those providing the information but there is also an issue of proper interpretation of inherent themes and if the content is being labeled for its sensitive nature or if the author is being labeled for their identity. This labeling tactic has deeper reaching harm beyond base level potential readership when the politics of education comes into play. The Content Warning definition above has a line directly after that states: "Content warnings are not an excuse for students to skip class or censor your material." However, content warnings can also be used to exclude materials from a curriculum or educational curated reading list, and with the hot topic battleground of updating school reading from heavily problematic classics to inclusive nuanced modern literature, that misinformation can become a true hindrance.

On the author front, authors are facing backlash from corporate oversight, meaning the third party juggernaut of Amazon is making their books unsearchable. This has particularly impacted the self publishing romance community, and many authors who make their livelihoods through their work and have had to create work arounds to provide their readership with CWs.

At this moment in time, the personal choice, despite its issues will likely be the route moving forward. And while CWs remain a topic of debate, there is also the weigh in of science to consider.

The Science of Trigger Warnings

The Scientific America article (linked in resources below!) explores the data behind Trigger Warnings, if they are actually a hindrance or helpful to the reader. The results were surprising. The study included in the article found the introduction of CWs actually induced more anxiety & intrusive thoughts in the reader and negatively skewed their judgement of provided texts. The author of the article states that further research of various populations would be needed to produce a fully cohesive conclusion but the results of this initial study found that CWs were 'at best trivially helpful' and gave this statement:

"college students are increasingly anxious... and widespread adoption of trigger warnings in syllabi may promote this trend, tacitly encouraging students to turn to avoidance, thereby depriving them of opportunities to learn healthier ways to manage potential distress."

Personal vs Industry Standard

If the publishing industry decided to roll out a standard labeling system for Content Warnings tomorrow, it would be a hot mess, but it would also create a tent pole that would solve both of the above issues that personal choice use of CWs has sparked. An industry wide CW rollout would be extensive, there are literally millions upon millions of books. It would take time and a massive effort to update classics with CWs and the decision would likely spark a hotbed of issues ranging from 'what constitutes the necessity of a content warning?' or 'would this be a contractually obligated detail?'. Could the Publishing Industry tackle the issue of Content Warnings? Or will this remain a hot button issue for the foreseeable future? The landscape of publishing is constantly shifting so there is no telling what the future could hold.

Resources & Further Reading

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