Trigger Warnings Are Necessary, But Insufficient | Sojourners

Trigger Warnings Are Necessary, But Insufficient

Image via Lenscap Photography/

I appreciate the incredible role of the media: Journalists and the media outlets that employ them must be precise, accurate, and timely. In a 24-hour news cycle, they bear tremendous responsibility.

Yet as we recover from tragedies that saw killings of black men and police officers, I’m mindful that despite reporters’ best intentions, journalistic coverage can fall short. Members of the media must be more intentional in their coverage of communities of color. It’s not enough to increase coverage of our communities — the stories must be holistic, balanced, and fair.

When African-Americans are featured in the news, especially in times of crisis and during instances of police or anti-black violence, media coverage is often laced with weak language, problematic imagery, insensitive scrutiny, and inappropriate characterizations.

In describing the shooting death of Alton Sterling, who was shot at close range by a police officer in Baton Rouge, La., I heard MSNBC host Tamron Hall refer to his killing as an “incident.” (Hall was not the only one to use timid language — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, too, called it an “incident.”)

Let’s be clear. An “incident” is a wardrobe malfunction. The term is woefully inadequate to describe a police officer shooting a civilian at point-blank range.

And the continual broadcasting of videos and pictures of deceased or dying African-Americans who are victims of police violence is nothing short of perverse. While imagery is important, I’m not sure it’s helpful to our emotional wellbeing to be bombarded with horrific images of human beings in their final moments. And such imagery is prevalent only when the victims are African American or Latino. When was the last time you turned on the television or scanned the front page of a newspaper and saw white bodies riddled with bullets?

In the last week alone, media outlets — from CNN to the New York Daily News — displayed images of the bodies of African American men who were fatally shot by police. The New York Daily News published pictures of Philando Castile with a large pool of blood splattered across an otherwise- white T-shirt on the front page of their July 10 paper. The searing image captures Castile as he sits dying in the driver’s seat of a vehicle.

The same New York Daily News cover also shows an image of Alton Sterling lying on concrete, again with a large blood stain on his chest, after being fatally shot by Baton Rouge police.

Publishing or broadcasting such imagery appears to be casual fare. A trigger warning, while appropriate, is insufficient.

Even when we aren’t bombarded by harmful imagery, there are other issues. The media tends to highlight African-American victims’ mistakes or falls from grace. CNN included Alton Sterling’s arrest record and prior convictions alongside news of his death. They also went digging for Sterling’s mugshot. Such a maneuver subtly suggests the victim isn’t worthy of sympathy, or perhaps somehow contributed to their own demise.

Increasingly, being a victim of violence isn’t a shield from having one’s past highlighted post-mortem. This is unacceptable.

Media outlets should be more conscious of the language, imagery, and context in which they cover all people, especially during times of national crisis. And for those of us who aren’t journalists and publishers, how we share news matters. As we challenge dehumanizing language and problematic coverage, let’s be clear in our own use of language. Here are a few a tips:

1. Use Active Voice, Not Passive Voice. When crafting commentary about police violence, be sure to use the active voice. Saying a person “was shot” leaves no one responsible. Saying “The police shot…” is more accurate and more powerful.

2. Utilize Descriptive Language. Accurate details make your case. For example, “the officer shot him at close range” is more accurate and more forceful than “the officer shot him.”

3. Humanize the Victim. When writing about police brutality, victims of crime, take care to humanize the victim. One way to do this is by placing them in the context of their family. For instance, in thinking about the killing of Alton Sterling, it’s important that media coverage note he was the father of five. That’s an essential fact about who he was and should be highlighted.

4. Insist on Calling Children “Children” When They Are 18 Years of Age or Younger. Too often the media picks up on police language and calls our children young men and women, even when societal standards do not confer that classification. For example, Laniya, Ashaunti and Dominique were sometimes referred to as young women, even though they were in high school. They were girls, not women.

I’ve shared my tips. What are yours?

While I know these tips won’t bring back the lives we’ve lost, this is my attempt to cope with the breathtaking violence that occurred last week in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights. Thoughts and well wishes aren’t enough. Even in times of crisis, we must continue to demand informed and balanced media coverage.


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