Should we be adding ‘graphic content’ warnings to our degree programmes?

An expert comment from Bob Green OBE.

Reading with interest, a somewhat critical commentary in the national press on the University of Exeter (9th June 2022). The article referred to warnings given to students, alerting them to some of the course materials contained within the forensic science modules. These comments seemed to suggest this was overprotective or perhaps overindulging.

Having over 36 years working in the profession and over 20 years of teaching, I thought it only right to add a more encouraging voice, in support of the University of Exeter. And for that matter, others who would follow their advice by alerting students to any graphic or otherwise disturbing content which some may find disturbing. The reality is that this is to be considered good practice and a message I repeat regularly to forensic students at the University of Kent.

We should be clear of our intentions when teaching and was always – always be sensitive both to the nature of the topic and to the feelings of the individual. In actual fact, I remember this type of ‘trigger warning’ appearing on the job advertisement when I took up my first position back in 1986. I repeat these warnings regularly to our forensic science students at the University of Kent and have seen these similar warnings repeated in some professional conferences I’ve attended over the years. This is neither an example of the world having gone mad and neither should it be considered as woke, naïve or otherwise ill-advised.

But perhaps I could correct the article by saying that we are not (in isolation) aiming to train the next generation of forensic science Crime Scene Investigators. In my experience, some students will develop an interest in this aspect of forensic science and pursue this as a career afterwards. Others will be interested in different career paths, within forensic science or wider afield. Perhaps I can reflect upon the comments made within the Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Science and Technology (Seventh Report) noting that undergraduate forensic science degree programs can, quite conceivably stimulate students into developing curiosity of science which otherwise may not have existed. If we can use the appeal of forensic science to develop students in many areas of science then I feel this is extremely valuable. I’ve said repeatedly, over the years that we must deliver learning to our students which will equip them for a wide range of professions.

Needless to say, it is necessary to cover several explicit aspects of forensic science. But where ever this is introduced then it should be preceded by a degree of forewarning. I’m afraid that some of the article which comments upon bygone policing practice appears somewhat unreasoned and rather inconsistent in present-day teaching or the profession more generally.