Trigger words are ones that you relate to strongly–in a positive or negative manner. Journalists, especially on-air or in ad and PR campaigns–have to know what words trigger that reaction inside them. Once you identify your triggers, journalists and practitioners can adjust for them emotionally.
Michael Bugeja has played the “Trigger Word” game in his ethics classes for decades.
Trigger words are just that: words or phrases that elicit inside us an overwhelmingly positive or negative emotional reaction. How does this relate to advertising, journalism and public relations? When a source or client utters such words, they alone may alter our perception, prompting us to view the person as friend or foe, based solely on a word or short phrase.
Here’s how the “Trigger Word” game is played in media ethics classes with enrollments approaching or exceeding 100.
- Share only proper nouns. Students are warned not to share lowercase words that cause an emotional reaction. Lowercase words may violate privacy because they indicate that something associated with the word happened in the person’s life. Proper nouns emanate from culture, media, pop culture, social debate, government or other (miscellaneous). Example: “abortion” vs. “Roe v. Wade.”
- Record words on board. Each time a student shares a word, that proper noun is written on the chalkboard or whiteboard. A minimum of at least 30 words are listed there.
- Students vote on words. Students are asked which words on the board also cause a positive or negative emotional reaction in them.
- Top 10 words for each class are listed. After all the votes are tabulated, ties are listed in alphabetical order (i.e. #9 Clinton, #10 Trump).
Top words for each year are compiled in these categories:
CULTURE (history, education, religion, etc.). Students typically learn about these words as a part of U.S. history or through their religion, education or convention.
GOVERNMENT (government figures, officials, policies). Students learn about these persons in their capacity of holding office, leading state or nation, or issuing policy.
MEDIA (news, social media, films). Students learn about these terms from viewing news in a multitude of journalism platforms.
POP CULTURE (fads, hype, urban legend). These terms come to us via sensationalized or mythic terms and figures, such as UFO and Bigfoot.
SOCIAL DEBATE (legal, social, political debates). These are long-standing debates, such as climate change or planned parenthood.
OTHER (local terms, businesses, miscellaneous). These are local or regional terms associated with the place the game is played, such as “Hawkeye,” the rival’s nickname for Iowa State “Cyclones.”
Here is a snapshot of responses at Ohio Univ. and Iowa State Univ.
Note: Ohio University years are in green and Iowa State in cardinal.
Here are trigger words from Ethics Class, January 2020 and Fall 2020
Within eight months, what terms came into the public conscience? Who placed them there?
Equally as interesting is what has more impact on our long-term collective psyches–culture or media?
One might think media, but a snapshot of responses from 8 years at Ohio University and 7 years at Iowa State suggests Culture (56 citations) as the dominant factor, followed by Media (41), Government (16), Social Debate (13) and Pop Culture (7).
FIGURE 1: Impact of “media” rises dramatically and levels off while “culture” maintains high numbers in every year but two (1999 and 2000), tying with “media.”
FIGURE 2: Impact of “media” rises, peaking in 2016, and drops off to low levels in 2018-19. Culture remains relatively high but not dominant. Social debate shows high levels in 2012 and 2019. Pop culture and other designations remain relatively except in 2018.
Keep in mind that this is just a snapshot. Living Media Ethics is in the process of collecting decades worth of data from this exercise in a more extensive research project.
In the meantime, it is important to note the impact that culture has, especially on social mores formulated by history, education and convention, and to be more skeptical about media’s long-term impact on perception.