Philosophy Scholar: Here’s Why News Consumers Are Crisis-Weary

This article by Rebecca Rozelle-Stone is republished here with permission from The Conversation. This content is shared here because the topic may be of interest to Snopes readers; however, it does not represent the work of Snopes’ fact checkers or editors.


When Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by land, air and sea on February 24, 2022, the images of war were beamed to appalled onlookers around the world. Away from the action, many of us became aware of unprovoked aggression by reading news reports online or watching television to see explosions and people fleeing danger and huddled in underground bunkers.

Six months later, the violence continues. But for those not directly affected by events, this ongoing war and its victims have moved to the periphery of many people’s attention.

This detour makes sense.

Paying attention to realities like war is often painful, and people are not well equipped to maintain sustained attention on ongoing or traumatic events.

In addition, since the start of the war in Ukraine, many other events have taken place to capture the world’s attention. These include droughts, wildfires, storms linked to global warming, mass shootings and the cancellation of Roe v. Wade.

As the philosopher-psychologist William James asked, “Doesn’t any sudden shock, the appearance of a new object, or the change of a sensation create a true interruption?”

Ongoing tragic events, such as the assault on Ukraine, may escape people’s attention because many may feel overwhelmed, helpless, or drawn into other pressing issues. This phenomenon is called “crisis fatigue”.

The McKinney Fire burned more than 60,000 acres in northern California this summer, killing four people and destroying 90 residences. Drought conditions allowed the fire to spread quickly.
AP Photo/Noah Berger, CC BY

Roots of Crisis Fatigue

Malicious and authoritarian actors like Putin are aware of public fatigue and use it to their advantage. “War fatigue is starting to set in,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said. “Russia plays on our fatigue. You must not fall into the trap.

In a speech to marketing professionals in Cannes, France, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked them to keep the world focused on the fate of his country. “I’ll be honest with you – the end of this war and its circumstances depend on the world’s attention…” he said. “Don’t let the world move on!”

Unfortunately, many of us have already changed channels. The tragedy has become commonplace.

I became interested in the phenomenon of fatigue following my scholarly research on moral attention. This idea was formulated by the 20th century French philosopher and social activist Simone Weil.

According to Weil, moral attentiveness is the ability to fully open up – intellectually, emotionally, and even physically – to the realities we encounter. She described such mindfulness as alertness, a suspension of our selfish frameworks and personal desires in favor of a Buddhist-like emptiness of mind. This mindset receives, raw and unfiltered, whatever is presented without avoidance or projection.

Not surprisingly, Weil found caring to be inseparable from compassion or “suffering with” the other. There is no avoiding pain and anguish when dealing with the afflicted; hence, she wrote that “thought flees affliction as swiftly and irresistibly as an animal flees death”.

The sensitivity involved in crisis management can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, mindfulness can put people in touch with the unvarnished lives of others so that the afflicted are truly seen and heard. On the other hand, such openness can overwhelm many of us with vicarious trauma, as noted by psychologists Lisa McCann and Laurie Pearlman.

However, the difficulty of focusing on events like war is not only due to the inherent fragility of moral attention. As noted by cultural critics like Neil Postman, James Williams, and Maggie Jackson, the 24/7 news cycle is one of the many pressures clamoring for our attention. Our smartphones and other technologies with incessant communications – from the trivial to the apocalyptic – create environments to keep us perpetually distracted and disoriented.

Why the public disconnects

Along with the threats to people’s attention posed by our distracting technologies and information overload, there’s also the fact of crisis fatigue causing readers to consume less information.

This year, analysis by the Reuters Institute showed that interest in news has fallen sharply across all markets, from 63% in 2017 to 51% in 2022, while 15% of Americans have disconnected completely from media coverage.

According to the Reuters report, the reasons for this differ, in part, depending on political affiliation. Conservative voters tend to avoid the news because they deem it untrustworthy or biased, while liberal voters avoid the news because of feelings of helplessness and fatigue. Online information, with its perpetual drive to keep its eyes glued to screens, unwittingly undermines its own purposes: to provide information and keep the public informed.

Adopt a new approach

How might we regain meaningful attention and response capacity in the midst of relentless, rambling, and overwhelming news? The researchers made a variety of recommendations, generally focused on mastering the use of digital devices. Beyond that, readers and reporters might consider the following:

  1. Limiting daily news consumption can help people become more attentive to particular areas of concern without feeling overwhelmed. Cultural theorist Yves Citton, in his book “The Ecology of Attention,” urges readers to “extricate” themselves “from the grip of the media regime of vigilance.” According to him, the current media create a state of “permanent vigilance” through “crisis speeches, images of disasters, political scandals and violent news items”. At the same time, reading long articles and essays can actually be a practice that helps cultivate attention.
  2. Journalists can include more solution-based stories that capture the possibility of change. Courses of action can be proposed to readers to counter paralysis in the face of tragedy. Amanda Ripley, a former Time magazine reporter, notes that “stories that offer hope, agency, and dignity feel like breaking news right now, because we’re so overwhelmed with the opposite.”

Weil, who committed himself to the responsibility of moral caring but did not idealize tragedy, wrote: “Nothing is so beautiful and wondrous, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of ‘sweet and perpetual ecstasy, only good.’


Rebecca Rozelle-Stone, philosophy teacher, North Da Universitykota

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.