content, advisory, and trigger warningsLast updated
There are three main types of warnings: content, advisory, and trigger warnings.
A content warning comes before an article, video, or work of art and alerts the audience to potentially sensitive material. Common topics of content warnings include sexual assault, animal cruelty, self-harm, pornographic material, graphic violence, slurs, hate speech, blood, and death. For text articles, you can alert readers to certain kinds of content by writing “CW: item 1, item 2, etc.” If your piece is a podcast, video, etc., you can read out content warnings: “Before we begin, we’d like to warn you that this piece contains A, B, C…” It’s helpful to be as specific as possible about what content relates to the warning. For example, telling readers a piece contains a transphobic slur is more informative than “slur” alone. For a lengthier piece, posting the page numbers or timestamps where the problematic content is located can also be helpful.
Some organizations and individuals denounce content warnings as censorship, but this accusation is often made in bad faith. Censorship is the prohibition of a piece of media and aims to prevent its consumption. Content warnings, meanwhile, give individuals a choice of when and how they want to interact with the work.
An advisory warning signals to parents that the piece may contain content inappropriate for children or teens. Context matters. For example, a detailed sex ed article may get an advisory warning on a family-oriented health website but not on a professional pamphlet for pediatricians.
A trigger warning is intended for individuals who have mental health symptoms that can be “set off.” While content warnings and trigger warnings often cover the same subject matter, a trigger warning may address specific items that aren’t considered sensitive enough for a content warning. For example, the average content warning wouldn’t warn people about gunshot sounds. But a counselor for veterans may include a trigger warning before sharing a video about gun safety, as the sound of a gun firing could cause an individual with PTSD to experience flashbacks. A trigger warning allows the individual to mentally prepare for the trigger or to delay engagement with the material until they are emotionally ready.
Since triggers are often unique to the individual, it is impossible to cover everyone’s potential triggers in a warning. But if your intended audience is people with phobias or trauma, it can be helpful to alert them to potentially relevant triggers. For example, if you are making a podcast episode directed at people with a phobia of dogs (cynophobia), it would be wise to include a trigger warning before playing sounds of barking.
- “Trigger Warnings” in the Media (DART Center for Journalism and Trauma)
- An Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings (University of Michigan)
Content, advisory, and trigger warnings are notices that a piece of content may contain material that people find offensive, graphic, or inappropriate for certain audiences, and/or that may set off mental health symptoms. It’s helpful to be as specific as possible about what content relates to a warning. For example, telling readers a piece contains a transphobic slur is more informative than “slur” alone.