Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February and the escalation of Europe’s biggest war in the 21st century has garnered massive media attention. Ukrainian journalists, citizens and officials have been working non-stop to witness the tragedies of Russian aggression and provide context, often using social media such as Telegram, Twitter or YouTube for live reporting of events on the ground. Foreign media professionals have also been working in and around Ukraine to document the impact of the humanitarian crisis, the human rights atrocities and war crimes. They have also reported on the displacement of millions of Ukrainian civilians as well as other political and economic impacts of the war on a global scale.
The crisis unfolding around the war has reinvigorated debates about key challenges of reporting on conflicts. First among these is the challenge of creating impactful journalistic content that captures the public interest and holds global attention. Closely tied to it is ensuring the security of independent journalists working in conflict zones. Third is the struggle to counteract disinformation and malicious propaganda while prioritizing freedom of information in a highly charged environment. None of these challenges are new, yet the present moment shows that the impact of such crises on media coverage and news interest can differ greatly depending on proximity to the conflict and other factors.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has notably changed how both Ukrainian and foreign media have been covering the simmering eight-year conflict after the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. Since February, many more Western outlets have sent reporters to Ukraine and surrounding countries. In May 2022, The Washington Post established a new Kyiv Bureau – a first for the newspaper – to ground its Ukraine coverage, which had previously been done from the Moscow office.
To satisfy the heightened interest in Ukrainian affairs, veteran local media organisations such as Ukrainska Pravda and NV (Novoe Vremya) rolled out new and improved English-language versions. The Kyiv Independent, a new website launched by a small team who left the Kyiv Post, became Ukraine’s fastest growing English-language publication, with editor-in-chief Olga Rudenko named one of TIME Magazine’s 2022 Next Generation Leaders.
These positive developments have been overshadowed by the tragic deaths of journalists working in Ukraine. According to Ukrainian media NGO the Institute of Mass Information, since 24 February, 29 Ukrainian and foreign journalists and media workers have died in Ukraine, with at least seven of them killed while doing their work.30 In territories occupied by Russia, independent journalists have been prevented from working, threatened, or detained. Media freedom organisations have highlighted the need for more economic support, especially for regional media, and safety training and gear for local reporters and fixers, with campaigns launched by the likes of the Media Development Foundation and support hubs opened by the Institute of Mass Information and Reporters Without Borders
Russian state media outlets RT and Sputnik have been banned across the EU and restricted on social media as conduits of state war propaganda and disinformation. Meanwhile, within Russia itself, new draconian censorship laws have forced the remaining independent media into exile, preventing journalists in the country from reporting accurately about the war.
The turbulent events of the war and their coverage seemingly had an uneven impact on media consumption and news attitudes globally. A follow-up survey commissioned by the DNR in March-April 2022 to assess how Russia’s war in Ukraine might be changing news habits, polled people in five countries: Brazil, Germany, Poland, the UK, and the US. The survey found that, while a majority of the respondents in each country were following news of Russia’s war in Ukraine at least ‘somewhat closely’, geographical proximity – and immediate impact – were factors. Attention was highest in Germany (with 84% following the news extremely closely, very closely or somewhat closely), as well as in Poland, which borders Ukraine (72%), and the UK (73%). These countries are close to the conflict and there, the economic and political fallout is already affecting the lives of ordinary citizens. In Brazil, both politically and geographically farther from the conflict, around 40% of news consumers were either not following it ‘very closely’ or not following it at all.
Although not all changes in news consumption can be attributed to extensive coverage of the conflict, the follow-up survey found little evidence of the reversal of the key trends in the prewar DNR survey – namely, decreases in news interest and increases in news avoidance. In fact, in Germany, Poland, Brazil and the US, the proportion who said they sometimes or often actively avoid the news had increased since the start of the war. We know news avoidance can stem from the negative effect war coverage has on people’s mood, so it is not surprising that the devastating events of Russia’s war in Ukraine have caused more people to turn away from it.
Despite the increase in news avoidance, the proportion who said they access news several times a day increased in Poland by 6pp, as did the overall level of interest in news in the country (also by 6 pp). This highlights that news avoidance and news interest are not mutually exclusive. Yet it raises concerns about the impact of the courageous work of frontline reporters, as it does not seem to have affected trust in news (apart from a 4pp increase in the UK). Across the five countries, nearly half or more of the respondents believed news media to be doing a good job with coverage and keeping people up to date. At the same time, they felt the media had not performed quite as well for explaining the wider implications of the conflict or providing a different range of perspectives on it.
In Ukraine itself, the war brought its own challenges for assessing media consumption and interest in news. According to 2021 research by Detector Media, television remained the most common media channel for Ukrainians to access news about Ukraine and the world, mirroring DNR’s own findings for the countries in its follow-up survey in 2022. However, more recent surveys reveal that Russian military attacks on communications infrastructure and mass displacement of Ukrainian civilians have seen almost one third of Ukrainian news consumers lose access to TV viewing in their homes.
A significant proportion of Ukrainians have shifted their media consumption to online platforms, mixing digital TV broadcasts with online news websites and social media channels. They have prioritised mobile access over desktop (reflecting the loss of stable fixed connections) and have been devoting more time to online news – with many Ukrainian media outlets reporting a 75- 300% growth in traffic by April 2022.37 Despite heightened news consumption, the top visited websites are still google.com, YouTube and Facebook. Ukrainian media outlets also run active channels on messenger apps such as Telegram, where many Ukrainians go to get news updates, real-time air raid alerts, and latest casualty numbers. Overall Ukrainians’ time spent online has dropped, perhaps indicative of the overall information fatigue.
While Ukrainians’ media consumption or news avoidance have been affected by the war far more directly than for media audiences elsewhere, the complex hybrid media environment nonetheless reinforces the value of in-depth reporting and the need for more journalistic efforts to explain the far-reaching implications of the conflict. Enabling local and foreign independent journalists to provide clear and contextualized coverage in a variety of forms and on multiple platforms, and giving them the resources to do so safely, should become the key task for media organisations and others supporting free expression and media development worldwide.
Dr Tetyana Lokot is an Associate Professor in DCU’s School of Communications.
This essay originally appeared as part of the 2022 Digital News Report Ireland. The full report can be accessed Here.