Troubling Trends and Trigger Warnings

The “iPhone 6 knees” challenge made its rounds on social media this past week. It is yet another example of how social media can be used to promote disordered eating. The challenge was used to prove how thin women’s legs were.

Because trends are inherently news, many women’s magazines and newspapers wrote about this. Some did a much better of reporting on it than others.

Kelsey Miller from Refinery29 did an exemplary job of reporting on this topic.

Because discussing a thinness challenge could potentially harm readers who are struggling with an eating disorder, Miller began the article with a trigger warning.

Trigger warnings have become somewhat controversial and even been the subject of some mockery. Regardless, I think the trigger warning used in this article was both a good and necessary decision. Trigger warnings allow for readers who may be affected by this article to either skip it or prepare themselves. I will let Miller tell you why:

‘Anything that claims to gauge one’s thinness and is accompanied by the word ‘challenge’ is going to be harder to resist for an eating disordered person,’ Kelsey Osgood told me. The author of How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, Osgood is both personally and professionally versed in the language and rituals of ED. While these images are not precisely the same as pro-ana propaganda (which isn’t simply about thinness, Osgood explains, ‘but rather about aspiring to be pathological in addition to being dangerously thin”), they’d very likely have a similar impact. ‘My guess is that if someone with an eating disorder didn’t ‘succeed’ at one of these challenges, he or she would feel like a fat failure, even if exhibiting a myriad other symptoms/side effects of an eating disorder,’ Osgood adds.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics explicitly emphasizes that journalists need to minimize harm through their work by showing compassion for those who may be affected by the coverage. This article could have detrimental side effects to people with eating disorders or struggling to overcome an eating disorder.

Journalists can’t always use trigger warnings in their work. It is impossible to know what is going to trigger everyone, but when reporting on troubling trends like “the iPhone 6 knee” challenge, it is important to do so. Reports on trends like this don’t do any good. It makes the trend more popular by discussing it. There is no good way to report on this, and Cosmopolitan provides the perfect example.

Although Cosmopolitan tried to discuss how terrible this trend was, it still promoted it. It provided images of the challenge, which perpetuates the idealization of overly thin bodies.

While the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics also said it is important to seek truth and report it, journalists constantly need to remember the potential implications of the articles they write.

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Truth and journalism

Truth lies at the heart of journalism, but the definition of truth has been fluid throughout history as journalists and other people gained a better understanding of what components are necessary to present information accurately. The conception of what is considered journalistic truth has evolved from presenting “fair and balanced” opinions in articles to presenting an “accurate” story through verification. Thus, thoroughly fact-checking articles to ensure the accuracy of stories is inherently jeopardized through modern society’s emphasis on instantaneous news production, the growing competition for a shrinking readership and editorial pressure to break stories.

For instance, the infamous 2000 election, in which the media incorrectly reported that Al Gore won the election, acts as a prime example of how accuracy can be compromised when news is reported without knowing all the facts and weighing the ethics. The Voter News Service released that Gore had won based off of exit polls in Florida, an important swing state, but voting was still open in Central Time and Pacific Standard Time. Suggs and Stone (2011) said, “Their [the media] rush to get information on air turned out to be a mistake that would cost the media a lot of credibility” (p. 260). The media compromised the validity of the election because many people chose not to go vote after the release of who won the election, according to a study done by Yale University. In this situation, journalists should have taken more time to consider the ethical dilemma before breaking this story because the decision to release this erroneous information about a presidential race that was too close to call influenced the presidential election. Suggs and Stone (2011) said, “Complete accuracy is needed before information is presented to the public. And that’s simply not the case here. News and truth need to be synonymous” (p. 262). Accurate information is useful to the public. Incorrect information is not. The public will always remember who got a story wrong, and the public will rarely remember who broke a story first.

Somewhat similarly in the “Killian Memo Scandal,” Mary Mapes received documents, which alleged that George W. Bush received special treatment during his time at the Texas Air National Guard. She verified the documents to the best of her ability, but she faced editorial pressure to release the story in a matter of days rather than weeks. She conceded, and the documents turned out to be falsified. This ultimately resulted in her getting fired along with many other people who worked with her on this story. Jackson and Coleman said (2008), “Mapes would later write, ‘I was uncomfortable with the script and, in retrospect, I should have done something I’d never done at work before. I should have said ‘No’” (p. 57).

In conclusion, fast-paced information distribution should be secondary to the need to verify the facts of a story and consider any ethical dilemmas that a story may present. The public turns to journalists for vital information about what is happening in the world. The crucial role that journalism plays in democratic societies is jeopardized when stories are released with major fact errors because the inaccurate information that is presented in articles causes the public to doubt the capabilities of journalists to present the truth.

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