Watching Ukraine: Will Americans stay tuned?

Ukrainian soldiers walk on a destroyed bridge in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Wednesday, April 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

With the standoff between Russian troops and Ukrainian fighters holed up in Mariupol, the world’s attention remains focused on this ghastly war 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — or so it seems.

CNN has rarely cut away from the war to cover other stories. It has 75 people in Ukraine. Fox News is having a ratings spike due to Ukraine coverage — up 26 percent in viewership over the same month last year.

How long will the media stay focused, given that the war could drag on for many months?

So far, American viewers are sticking with the war. At the beginning of the invasion, CNN, FOX and MSNBC averaged 6.4 million viewers in prime time, according to Nielsen’s ratings. That is 2.5 million more people than the average viewership at that time of year.

The big surprise is traditional network broadcast newscasts have also put Ukraine at the top of the agenda, competing for interviews and sending high-profile journalists into the region.

According to the Tyndall Report, a journalism newsletter that tracks nightly newscasts, Ukraine has received greater coverage by ABC, CBS and NBC than media analysts expected given the diminishing coverage of foreign policy over decades and the small news hole for international stories in a half-hour evening newscast.

In the late 1980s, the three major television networks averaged an annual total of approximately 3,600 minutes of airtime on foreign stories, according to the Tyndall Report, which finds that by 2010 that coverage was only roughly 1,200 minutes — three times less. Ukraine has gotten more network television coverage in its first month than the Syrian civil war received in a full year.

Why is a war without U.S. troops on the ground fighting garnering such interest?

First is geography. Many Americans are descendants of Europe. They make mental comparisons with World War I or World War II and see this war as a potential global conflagration. With Russia as the sole aggressor, there is a certain moral clarity to the conflict along with human drama. According to the Pew Research Center, confidence in NATO has gone up, and support for Russia, writ large, has fallen. Seven in 10 Americans now see Russia as an enemy. Sixty-seven percent of Americans, as of last month, express favorable views of NATO — up from 61 percent in 2021. 

Second is the role of public and personal diplomacy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made numerous direct appearances, appeals and public outreach on behalf of his country. He has given interviews to anchors of network programs, spoken before parliaments and the U.S. Congress and nurtured his image as a Churchill-like heroic figure. That strategy is paying off. According to Pew, 72 percent of Americans have confidence in Zelensky — higher than any in other foreign leader today. Most Americans (92 percent) have little or no confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of global affairs.

Third is the changing nature of media — when and where Americans get news. In 2021 almost half of U.S. adults said they get their news from social media, with Facebook topping the list. Social media creates a built-in news feed of public interest that is shared, posted and re-posted, creating its own echo chamber.

Lastly is access. Ukraine has been beckoning and welcoming of journalists – giving tours of the battle-hit cities, providing interviews with local mayors and city officials – allowing reporters to essentially roam freely. Six journalists have been killed covering the war so far.

Europe is also accessible to media. Poland, home to the vast numbers of refugees fleeing Ukraine, is open to media coverage, along with the surrounding countries.

When reporters get unfettered access, they take it. Which is why Putin’s decision to close independent media and kick out reporters has backfired, leaving Russia with only one man’s version of events rather than perspectives from ordinary Russians.

Social media is reaching some Russians inside the country, with Telegram able to skirt state censorship, but media resources are not being spent covering Moscow.

But will all this media coverage last?

War crowds out other stories. We’ve heard relatively little about the Jan. 6th investigation, climate change or the 2022 midterm elections. Donald Trump is getting less airtime. COVID-19, which dominated the news for two years, is barely getting mentioned, except for a recent spike.

Over time, non-Ukraine stories will creep back onto our airwaves as attention wanes.  The huge investment in media coverage of Ukraine may prove difficult to sustain.  Summer often drives people outdoors and away from television sets. A post-pandemic sense of freedom will also make Americans eager to return to life as they knew it.

Journalists must ensure that Ukraine does not become the forgotten story after the major fighting ends and the hard process of rebuilding the country begins. Violence keeps viewers engaged, but it is hard to have patience during diplomacy or when access to towns and cities becomes difficult. War crime trials are also slow and difficult to cover.

Lastly, viewers need to remember that our involvement in the story of Ukraine is critical even just as observers of the conflict. We need to stay engaged.

Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice in public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She served as U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in the Obama administration.

Tags Mariupol Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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