By Daniel Perez
A YEAR AGO, our phones boiled over with frequent updates on the Russian mobilization along Ukraine’s borders and speculations on the possibility of war. When military conflict was a fact, the number of notifications from news apps increased even further, and we read it all. At first, due to intense media coverage, each notification’s objective value has gradually been overshadowed by the public weariness on the subject, leading to new content being interpreted as the same old message: war goes on.
There are similarities to the surge of notifications about the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The abundance of updates was greatly appreciated at a time when even work and social activities suddenly became hazardous choices. As the situation stabilized, the demand for frequent updates diminished, something the media didn’t seem to take into consideration.
Facilitating access to information is vital for a democracy, but there is a difference between readers actively pulling information, and information being pushed to readers. While doomscrolling (continuous surfing or scrolling through bad news) is a pull-type issue driven by the reader, oversaturation (the frequent and intense production of news) is a push-issue caused by the media. The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) published a report in 2022 about alarmistic news, examining push notifications as an important tool in the competition between media actors, and how this leads to notifications becoming more alarmistic and inaccurate. Moreover, it mentions the few studies on how the frequency and tempo of news notifications impact consumers: high levels of notifications were shown to cause distress and discomfort, leading to some users turning off all notifications rather than adjusting and limiting their news profile. It’s clear that people can lose interest in ongoing crises and miss key updates on their development.
Following the coronavirus outbreak, studies on media coverage in crises have focused largely on how crisis coverage affects the public and what people can do to mitigate the negative effects of intense news consumption. Filip Arnberg, director of the Swedish National Centre for Disaster Psychiatry, suggests diminishing the micro-consumption of news as a coping strategy to reduce the potential health risks from crisis coverage. While this broadens the issue, it doesn’t address its root cause: oversaturation. These findings may provide strategies for healthier media consumption habits, but they also imply a disproportionate share of responsibility on individuals to manage their exposure to notifications during crises. It’s disproportionate due to the media industry’s large organizational capacity and expertise, in contrast to the limitations to any individual’s sphere of control. After all, issues like doomscrolling are possible due to the high availability of content triggered by each new crisis.
In another report from 2021 about Swedish media’s coverage of the pandemic, MSB described the role of crisis journalism in relation to the public need for information during a crisis. This could be useful for understanding oversaturation’s relevance for the Ukraine war.
We’ve experienced phases 1-3 repeatedly and journalists have lived up to their A to C-roles accordingly, but we haven’t gotten a proper return phase in years due to the timing and duration of each crisis. The pandemic was a long and cyclic crisis whose return phase was silenced by the war’s initial and intensive phases. We’re living in a “Groundhog Day”-like situation, where we reach the stability phase but then have to start over. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss how oversaturation can be prevented not only by strengthening media users, but by also looking at how public weariness in current crises, like the war in Ukraine, could be prevented by reevaluating media’s publication habits from the individual’s perspective.
Historically, the media has needed to prioritize what information to publish due to distribution capacity limitations, whether in printed media, radio or television. Digitalisation, along with increased access to smartphones, is eliminating that reason to curate the amount of information to be published. However, news consumption is still a zero-sum game, and the new limiting factor for the media is the individuals’ consumption capacity. State and industry regulations on issues like data privacy take into consideration the limited capacity individuals have to deal with the complexities of necessary services like the internet. Since state regulation of the media may be less appropriate, it’s up to the industry to consider users’ consumption capacity.
How media coverage is conducted is crucial for how we allow decision-makers to manage conflicts and crises. Oversaturation presents a new set of challenges to be addressed if the public is to maintain support for Ukraine or engage in future crises. There is a need to update and further clarify how much media coverage is necessary, how much is optimal, and how much is just too much.
Public information needs are described in three to four stages, depending on the crisis:
- An initial phase – when a crisis is discovered and starts to develop, like the pandemic, the public needs to be alerted of potential emerging risks.
- An intensive phase – experienced as an emergency following the initial phase or by suddenly taking place, like an earthquake, the public demands quick updates on the situation and careful guidance.
- A phase of stabilization – when the situation is stable enough for the media to provide an
overview, questions of causes, responsibility, and consequences arise.
- A return phase – when the crisis is in regression, the public needs to be informed that no threats remain and society is back to normal.
The role of journalism during a crisis is divided into three phases:
- Overview – Takes place during the intensive phase. Journalists provide a picture of what happened, where and to whom. Information at this point is of high value and must be published as soon as possible.
- Knowledge building – Journalists deepen the understanding of the situation and provide more context during the stabilization phase.
- Review – Journalists examine the “why” and “how” of the crisis, focusing on responsibility and accountability, assessing consequences for individuals and society as a whole.
By: Daniel Perez
Photography: Ahmed Aqtai