‘How can Ukraine retain our attention?’ News Fatigue and its ethical dilemmas

Sofia Johanson explores how our ethical compulsion to stay informed is being challenged by the sheer wealth of information available to us. 

On the 24th of February 2022, the BBC premiered its new audio series ‘Ukrainecast’, with the pilot episode ‘Russia Attacks’. More than eighteen months on, it is still broadcast every Tuesday and Friday. Similarly, the team behind The Telegraph’s ‘Ukraine: The Latest’, have released a new hour-long episode every weekday since the 2nd of March 2022.

The speed with which these podcasts were initially put together, the frequency with which they are produced, and the sheer amount of information which they pack in indicate the overwhelming amount of coverage that we have access to. War reporting of the pre-digital age – which entailed a correspondent dictating or posting their reports to an editor so that it could appear exclusively in a newspaper the next morning – is beyond the contemporary imagination. Now, we witness the omnipresence of the war in Ukraine being constantly and instantaneously simulated all over the globe.

But crucially, the large and committed audiences of these podcasts, as well as the traffic on live update pages and the considerable engagement with traditional on-the-ground reporting, prove that demand is matching supply; we want to be permanently hooked up to the news cycle. Or at least we have a compulsion to be. The BBC itself reported on an experiment carried out in Canada that showed we have an underlying ‘negativity bias’, which draws us towards negative news stories, even if we claim we prefer to read about neutral or positive events. 

Nonetheless, the British public’s loyal commitment to events in Ukraine has certainly been a particular outlier in recent history, and it is worth interrogating why the conflict has not been thrown from the front pages as quickly as others.

Ukraine at the centre: how does it retain attention? 

The factor universally repeated by commentators on almost every platform – that this is the first war of this scale in Europe since 1945 – is probably the key to the war’s durability. But others rightfully highlight the racial dimension of the story. For instance, in a piece published in March 2022, Moustafa Bayoumi expressed his disturbance at the media pundits and reporters who focussed on the ‘European-ness’ of Ukrainians as the root of their solidarity. Questioning whether such commonalities as watching Netflix, driving certain cars, and appearing ‘middle-class’ should make the Ukrainians ‘more deserving of our sympathy than Iraqis or Afghans’. 

There remains uncertainty over how long geography, ethnicity, and existential questions over the preservation of liberal democracy will ensure the persistence of reporting on Ukraine. When will our chronically limited attention spans cause us to lose interest?

Luke Harding, former Moscow Bureau Chief and current Foreign Correspondent for The Guardian, spoke about the position of Ukraine in the British media at an event held earlier this term by the Stubbs Society and Oxford Media Society.

Whilst conceding that news fatigue poses a challenge to Ukraine, he pointed out the value of tackling stories from new angles. The variety which he prescribes is immediately visible in the records of his recent work; alongside the updates from the front lines is an incisive review of a newly released book by an exiled Russian journalist; a piece introducing the reader to the volunteer-engineers who are building bombs at an industrial estate near Kyiv, and one which explores the conflict’s impact on the Ukrainian publishing industry as well as its broader implications for language politics in the country.

The diversity of his work could prevent a decline in reader engagement, but the impact of the events of the last month render questions about news fatigue even more pressing. 

On the 26th of October, the New York Times released the first instalment of their new daily audio report on the Israel-Hamas conflict, ‘The War Briefing’. The new programme is described as having been developed to “meet this moment” of great consequence in the Middle East. On this side of the Atlantic, Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, has been hosting the new series ‘The Conflict: Israel-Gaza’ several times a week since the 10th of October.

Among the many consequences of the intensification of violence in Israel and Palestine, is the fact that most regular consumers of the news will be unaware that the Russian military has resumed the Wagner Group’s practice of recruiting prisoners, intense fighting around Avdiivka has created a ‘second Bakhmut’, and Ukraine has begun the forced evacuation of children from the eastern Donetsk and southern Kherson oblasts as danger mounts.  

As is now customary, one set of desperate circumstances is displaced by another, the headlines have migrated East and the ‘most read’ lists on news websites have undergone rapid restructuring.

President Zelenskyy acknowledged this in a press-briefing in early November when he admitted that events in the Middle East were ‘taking away the focus’ from Ukraine. Amidst already plummeting interest in the US, his task of retaining the attention of Europe becomes at once more important and more difficult. 

On a moral level, the idea of the simultaneous reporting on Ukraine and Gaza ‘competing’ for an audience is deeply uncomfortable. Yet Zelenskyy’s candidness is valuable, and we must be conscious of the fact that fundamentally, editors are choosing which story to put on the front page and readers are deciding when to turn off the news. 

It is not revolutionary to point out that the 24-hour news cycle is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst it is physically impossible to fully reap its benefits by constantly informing ourselves about every corner of the world, we can consciously acknowledge and resist the potential for exhaustion and resulting antipathy. 

A few weeks ago, while at an 85th birthday party, I repeatedly pulled out my phone from under the table to read live notifications of Israel’s ground offensive. The incongruity of a family celebration and the unfolding of a humanitarian crisis was not lost on me, but it must be said that we have become uncomfortably accustomed to reading about terrible events from the comfort of our own untouched lives, forgetting about them moments later when someone interrupts to ask if we want a tea or coffee.

How journalists, politicians, and readers themselves can deter this banalisation of violence and suffering, as well as combat news fatigue, is possibly one of the greatest challenges of our high-speed, information-rich age.