Ukraine Fatigue and What the Press Can and Can’t Do About It

From a CJR story by Jon Allsop headlined “Ukraine ‘fatigue’ and what the press can—and can’t—do about it”:

OVER THE WEEKEND, as world leaders arrived in Germany for the latest G7 summit, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, warned reporters about the durability of the so-far-united front of Western support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. “Realistically, there is going to be fatigue in populations and politicians,” Johnson said. “I think the pressure is there and the anxiety is there. We have got to be honest about that.” Johnson was talking, primarily, about the war’s impact on the rising cost of living across the world and the impact of that on international popular support for the war. Fatigue often implies another effect, too: diminished attention.

Maintaining international attention has clearly been a significant concern of Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, who proved a master at commanding it in the early days of the war. He has spoken about its importance on numerous recent occasions, calling on the international community to continue to supply it and Ukrainians to continue to demand it. Zelensky has continued to do his personal part, (virtually) touring various foreign Parliaments and other global events while also receiving high-profile guests; in the past two weeks, various top European leaders, Johnson, and the actor Ben Stiller have been among those to travel to Kyiv, with the latter also meeting Ukrainian refugees in Poland in a visit that was explicitly designed to steer attention toward the humanitarian fallout of the war. Ukrainian officials have also reportedly drawn up plans to have an exhibition of destroyed Russian tanks tour various European capitals. “The end of this war and its circumstances depend on the world’s attention,” Zelensky told the Cannes Lions festival last week. “Don’t let the world switch to something else.

While Zelensky was addressing creative professionals at Cannes (“I believe that the power of human creativity is greater than the power of a nuclear state that is stuck in the past,” he said), he has also made similar requests of the news media. “Every modern person knows well how the media works. It is very difficult to keep attention on one topic for a long time,” Zelensky told his countrymen in a video message earlier this month. “Please spread the information. Support our needs. Naturally, first of all, this concerns journalists.”

Media coverage is indeed a key funnel for public attention—and, in various Western countries, it’s true that the war is getting less coverage now than it did in its early days. Editorial boards, from that of the Wall Street Journal to that of Maine’s Bangor Daily News, have noticed and lamented the decrease. According to a Stanford University tool that tracks cable-news coverage, discussions of Ukraine peaked when the war began in late February and have since declined steadily to around the same level as early January, with discussions of Russia following a strikingly similar trajectory. In the first week of March, the war consistently dominated the front page of the New York Times, culminating in a huge, five-column photo of corpses in a street near Kyiv. In the first week of June, a jumble of stories competed on the front page every day.

Still, on all of these days bar one, the war (or something adjacent to it) was one of those competing stories—and that latter week culminated with a prominent, four-column photo of people taking shelter from Russian shells inside a Ukrainian monastery. Beyond counting column inches on A1, it’s clear that the Timesand many other major Western news organizations are continuing to cover the war extensively—and clear, too, that it remains greatly more visible than other ongoing conflicts around the world. (Tapping “Yemen” into the Stanford cable-news tool is a depressing exercise indeed.) Total Western media attention to the Ukraine war hasn’t proportionately tracked the changing severity of the situation over time, declining recently even as Ukraine has taken some sharp losses—but the frantic pace of the early coverage was never realistically going to prove sustainable. And, while the press is certainly important in marshaling ongoing public attention, it cannot do so alone.

“Compassion fatigue,” as some observers have dubbed dwindling international attention to the war, is, ultimately, a widespread human impulse—news organizations can put reporting in front of their audiences, but they can’t force them to care about it. Neal Rothschild, of Axios, reported recently, based on data curated by NewsWhip, that online media outlets have been putting out less Ukraine content of late, with the seventy thousand articles they collectively published in a week at the end of May representing a seven-fold decrease on the first week of the war. The data also showed, however, that social-media interactions with that content (defined as likes, comments, and shares) was subject to a greater decrease—twenty-two-fold—in the same period. On a per-article basis, NewsWhip data collected in April and May and reported by Rothschild and Sara Fischer found that content linked to the libel trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard scored more than five times as many interactions as war content, while content about Elon Musk scored more than four times as many interactions. “It was inevitable that the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial garnered more views and likes than the war,” Oleksiy Arestovych, a Ukrainian military adviser, told The Observer’s Dan Sabbagh. “People are getting weary and tired.”

Interestingly, Arestovych went on to draw a different conclusion to Zelensky, telling Sabbagh that he “couldn’t care less” about this state of affairs. “You don’t have to talk about us at all,” he said. “Just give us the weapons.” Many observers would argue that the Western media talking about Ukraine makes Western governments more likely to supply weapons, by driving public pressure. This makes sense. But the relationship here is complicated. While their response has been pretty united, the lengths to which different Western leaders have been prepared to go to help Ukraine have not cleanly or universally risen or fallen with media attention—and public attitudes are shaped by a multiplicity of inputs beyond the media’s control, not least the rising cost of living. Ultimately, of course, it’s not our job—on the news pages, at any rate—to lobby our governments to take particular decisions to support Ukraine. We should carefully scrutinize those decisions’ potential benefits and risks, and explain their factual background. But the buck ultimately stops with leaders themselves. Media attention isn’t a reliable proxy for wise policy.

The government of Ukraine also has a role to play in shaping media attention to the war, one that goes beyond Zelensky’s many public exhortations and bears on how it constructs its war narrative. As Julian E. Barnes, a national-security reporter at the Times, noted on a recent episode of The Daily, while a huge amount of information has helped international observers to track the war in real time, blindspots have persisted and have not always been filled by official updates; Ukraine, Barnes said, “touts its victories but is silent on its losses.” It’s understandable that Zelensky wants to project strength. But being open about losses can generate attention, too, and perhaps more so, by projecting the apparent truth that the war is now hanging in the balance—something that Ukrainian officials have, perhaps, recently realized as they have, for example, started to publicize the scale of troop casualties after months of caginess on that front.

Again, journalists’ job is to cover facts, and we should always want as much transparency as possible to that end; we’re trying to cut through the information war, not unconditionally help Ukraine to fight it. Logically, though, the more information we have, the better we can cover the war. Again, we can’t force people to care about that coverage with the flick of an attention switch. But audience fatigue is not a good reason for us to stop putting difficult truths in front of them. We should ensure, at minimum, that we are continuing to pay attention and giving news consumers the chance to. Our collective coverage need not match the volume of the war’s early days to be effective. Our most useful metrics now, perhaps, are the quality of our work, its prominence, and, to the extent possible, proportionality to the severity of developments on the ground.

I’m still seeing coverage of the war on a daily basis that is impressive on such grounds. But that’s not to say that we always succeed. Yesterday, Russian missiles struck a crowded shopping center in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, relatively far from the war’s recent frontlines, killing at least sixteen people and wounding dozens more. Zelensky called the strikes “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history”; at the G7, leaders denounced it as a war crime. The strikes got a lot of coverage in the US; this morning, a four-column photo of the destruction topped the Times’s front page. On cable, however, the story struggled to cut through in prime time. CNN covered it in its 7pm and 8pm Eastern hours, but not after that, while MSNBC, as far as I can tell, didn’t mention it in detail until it was nearly midnight. It’s hard not to conclude that, earlier in the war, it would deservedly have been an earlier story.

More on the war and the G7:

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