NPR- This school year, the University of Chicago has put the debate over "trigger warnings" on campus back in the news. The University told incoming freshmen that, because of its commitment to freedom of expression, it does not support warnings to students about potentially difficult material.
But amid all the attention to trigger warnings, there have been very few facts about exactly how common they are and how they're used.
NPR Ed sent out a survey last fall to faculty members at colleges and universities around the country. We focused specifically on the types of institutions most students attend — not the elite private universities most often linked to the "trigger warning" idea.
We received more than 800 responses, and this month as the issue once again made headlines we followed up with some of those professors.
Here are some of our key findings:
About half of professors said they've used a trigger warning in advance of introducing potentially difficult material. Most said they did so of their own volition, not because of a student's request or an administrative policy.
... The term "trigger" in this sense originates in psychology, where it pertains to people with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. For survivors of combat violence, sexual abuse or other trauma, certain sights, sounds, smells or other reminders can bring on intense emotional and even physical reactions, like a full-blown panic attack.
In the media and elsewhere online, language similar to trigger warnings is often used more broadly to label material that concerns sexual abuse or sexual assault, that is potentially racially or politically offensive, or graphically violent or sexual. For example, when NPR covered the fatal shooting by police of Philando Castile, an African-American resident of the Minneapolis area, we included these words: "We'll embed the video here, with the warning that it contains images and language that viewers might find disturbing."
But the rules are different in a college classroom than in a therapeutic setting, and both are different than when addressing a general audience. Even some of our respondents who had supplied a form of trigger warning as a "courtesy" or "heads-up" said they didn't intend to give students a free pass to avoid uncomfortable topics.