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Perceptions of media coverage of the war in Ukraine

Perceptions of media coverage of the war in Ukraine

On 24 February, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, marking the start of the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War. Major news organisations around the world have embedded journalists in Ukraine to cover bombings and violence in hard-hit towns and cities across broadcast, digital, and print media. Journalists, civilians, and politicians – most notably Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – have also taken to social networks like TikTok, Telegram, and Twitter to document the horrors of the war for a global audience in real time. The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine, along with the scale of the Western response to Russia’s invasion, has far-reaching political and economic effects.

To better understand how people have been accessing news about the Russia–Ukraine conflict, and to explore the impact this might have on overall trends in attitudes and behaviours, we commissioned YouGov to carry out a separate follow-up survey in five countries: Brazil, Germany, Poland, the UK, and the US. These countries were selected because they represent different levels of proximity to the conflict, ranging from Poland, which borders Ukraine, to Brazil and the US, which are on different continents. Fieldwork took place from 29 March to 7 April 2022 – roughly one month after the invasion began. We polled around 1,000 respondents in each country, and samples were assembled using the same quotas as the main survey. The questionnaire contained several new questions specifically about the Russia–Ukraine conflict, as well a handful of key questions from the main Digital News Report survey on news interest, use, avoidance, and trust. This allows us to directly compare our ‘pre-conflict’ results from the main 2022 survey and the ‘during conflict’ follow-up survey. However, because the Russia-Ukraine conflict overlapped with other domestic news stories, not all changes we see will be a direct result of coverage of the conflict.

Most people are following the conflict closely

First, how much attention are people paying to news about the conflict? In all five countries, a majority are following the Russia–Ukraine conflict at least somewhat closely. Although the conflict has global consequences, attention is highest in Germany, which is both geographically close to the conflict and where the effects are already filtering down to the lives of ordinary people – for example, in terms of energy prices. In Brazil, which is politically and geographically farther from the conflict, around 40% are not following it closely.

Some of these findings are in line with earlier data on those who are not consuming any news sources at all in markets like the US and UK. But in countries like Brazil and Germany, the proportion of 18–24s not following the conflict at all is particularly high compared with other age groups. And in the US and UK, women are slightly more likely than men to not be paying close attention to the war.

As we have seen with other major world events, people turn more to TV news at times of crisis. When asking respondents which news source they are paying the most attention to when it comes to the Russia–Ukraine conflict, television tops the list for three of the five countries – with the most attention to TV news on the conflict spread out geographically, from Germany (46%) and Brazil (44%). In the US and Poland, online news sites, non-mainstream sites, and social media combined account for a larger share – but TV is still the most widely used individual source for news about the conflict.

We see some differences in preferred sources by both age and market. For instance, the same splits we see in TV versus social media use between younger and older cohorts also applies to the most important platform for following the Russia–Ukraine conflict. In the UK, for instance, more than half (55%) of those 55 or older, but only 13% of 18–24s, are paying the most attention to TV news on the Russia–Ukraine conflict. And nearly eight times as many 18–24s (15%) are paying the most attention to social media news on the war as those 55 and older (2%). Further, while TV is especially dominant for information about the conflict in countries like Germany, social media are a particularly important source in Brazil, with 23% of people paying the most attention to these platforms for related information.

How has the conflict influenced people’s news behaviours and attitudes?

We also used this follow-up survey to explore whether the trends we described in the Executive Summary – namely, decreases in news use and interest and increases in news avoidance – were reversed by the extensive coverage of the Russia–Ukraine conflict. We did this by repeating the same key questions (albeit to a different sample of respondents) and looking for differences between the ‘pre-conflict’ sample from the main 2022 survey and the ‘during conflict’ follow-up survey. Of course, we need to be cautious about attributing all changes to coverage of the conflict. Major domestic stories – such as the ‘Partygate’ scandal in the UK – were unfolding in parallel, and these may also have influenced people’s attitudes and behaviours around news.

In general, we find little evidence that these long-term trends have been reversed – even temporarily – and in some cases there’s possible evidence that they have been accelerated. The clearest example of this is news avoidance. In Germany, Poland, and the US, the proportion who say they sometimes or often actively avoid the news has increased. The biggest increase of all was in Germany (+7pp), but significant increases can also be seen in Poland (+6pp) and the US (+4pp). To put some of these changes in context, the increase of 7pp in Germany in just two months is larger than the 5pp increase we saw in the five years from 2017 to 2022. We know that one of the main reasons people avoid the news is because of the negative effect it has on their mood, so it would be unsurprising if the deeply depressing and concerning nature of conflict has caused more people to turn away from it. In the UK and Brazil, where news avoidance was already high, we do not see evidence of a further increase – but it is equally important to note that it has not decreased either. Furthermore, in these two countries, news avoidance has already increased markedly in recent years – by 11pp from 2019 to 2022 in the case of the UK, and by 20pp in Brazil.

Despite the increase in news avoidance, the proportion who say they access news several times a day increased in Poland by 6pp. This highlights that news avoidance and news use are not mutually exclusive, and that people can make a conscious decision to moderate their news use – or perhaps coverage on specific topics – while still regularly checking in. In Poland, around 40% of people who accessed news several times a day during the conflict also say they sometimes or often actively avoid the news. The proportion who accessed the news several times a day fell by 6pp in Brazil and 4pp in Germany, and remained stable elsewhere.

In Poland and Germany, closest to the conflict, TV use for news in general is also up from before the conflict (3pp for Germany and 9pp for Poland). Use of social media for news in general remains even or is down across all countries – in Germany, for instance, by as much as 7pp for social media – perhaps because people are seeking out professional coverage or want to step back from continuous updates. But in general, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the effect of the Russia–Ukraine crisis on frequency of news access, especially as the polling took place several weeks after the invasion began.

Looking instead at interest levels in news, we again see the biggest change in Poland – a 7pp increase from pre-conflict levels. However, because declines in news interest have been so steep since 2020, this increase only represents a return to 2021 levels. Elsewhere, interest has either been unaffected, or – as in Brazil (-6pp) – continues to fall. Despite its severity, the Russia–Ukraine conflict has done little to reverse declining levels of interest in most countries, even in the short term. We see a similar picture when we look at levels of trust in news. Despite the bravery of journalists on the ground in Ukraine and the remarkable reporting they have produced, trust in news has not been affected – aside from a 4pp increase in the UK.

How do people feel about the news media’s coverage of the conflict?

Finally, we wanted to gauge how people feel about the media’s performance covering the Russia–Ukraine conflict. To do this, we asked people to rate how well the news media have done keeping people up to date, explaining the wider implications, and providing a range of different perspectives on the conflict. The news media are broadly seen to be doing a good job with coverage, especially on keeping people up to date on the latest news – with nearly half or more of respondents in all five countries agreeing the media have done a good job with this. But in general, they feel the media have not performed quite as well for explaining the wider implications of the conflict or providing a different range of perspectives on it – clearly illustrating, across all five countries, where news organisations could be doing a better job as the crisis continues to unfold. In general, people in the older age groups, and those with more formal education, tend to rate all aspects of the coverage more favourably.

Conclusions

In the wake of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than six million Ukrainian refugees1 – and with Russia now being accused by the international community of widespread human rights violations – the war in Ukraine continues to attract global attention. Across the five countries we study here, a majority are following the conflict at least somewhat closely, especially those nearest to it.

As we've seen with other major world events, many people are turning to television news for the latest information on the conflict – illustrating the continuing resonance of broadcast media in times of crisis. This may not be surprising, particularly given concerns about false or misleading information circulating on social media platforms. But in some countries, such as the US and Poland, attention to news from online sources (including mainstream and alternative news sites as well as social media) is also high.

Possibly given the difficult and at times traumatic nature of war coverage, we see some evidence of accelerating news avoidance across several countries – for instance, up 7pp in Germany. And while short-term news behaviours and attitudes have appeared to change in Poland – with increased news use and interest in the country closest to the conflict – even a story as newsworthy and significant as the war in Ukraine has not reversed declining levels of news interest in most countries.

As the conflict persists, it will be especially important for newsrooms to refocus efforts around explaining its wider implications. Given our findings this year on the percentage of younger and less educated news audiences finding the news hard to understand, as we discuss in the Executive Summary, clear ‘explainers’ and contextualisation of the Russia–Ukraine conflict – both what it means for those most affected by the war in and around Ukraine, as well as its broader implications for global audiences – may draw in a segment of news avoiders who simply want clearer, more relevant information. People largely do not feel as positively about news organisations providing a different range of perspectives on the conflict. However, as the invasion continues, and as new atrocities occur daily, providing alternative perspectives is unlikely to be seen by journalists as the most pressing task.

Footnotes

1 https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine/location?secret=unhcrrestricted