It seems like every media outlet is covering at least some aspect of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Audiences are naturally drawn to these stories. However, humans can’t keep attention on one topic forever. They also can’t live in a constant state of fear or tension. Even with life-threatening situations, like the coronavirus pandemic, the attention to global issues withers, and audiences get fatigued.
However, if you look at the rating of the social media posts of the main news publishers, you will see that stories about Ukraine are still engaging people. As podcasters already noticed, people are not getting tired of hearing about Ukraine, they are just drifting towards new themes and formats.
So is this the same for all news media – and, if so, which content creates more engagement? To answer this question, I decided to analyze social media activity on content about Ukraine for UK, US and European media outlets. Knowing which themes are the most popular is crucial for publishers, not just to increase the engagement rate now but to build stronger ties in the future.
Step 1. I chose 10 well-known English-language media from Europe, the UK and the US (the list includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, Euronews, Politico Europe, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent )
Step 2. I found top 10 articles about Ukraine from each media outlet by social media engagement from the day of the invasion (Feb 24) till April 7. What do I mean by ‘engagement’? In terms of social media, it means any action beyond viewing. On Facebook, for example, it is a like (or any other reaction), a share, or a comment. Link clicks are not included in the metric. For this, I used BuzzSumo service, which tracks engagement across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest.
Step 3. I categorized the main themes of the articles using thematic analysis and qualitative coding.
So, here are the main insights that came out of the analysis.
War is always devastating, but audiences also want to know how exactly it may impact their own country and what its role in the war is. Whether it’s a political position, military support, refugee aid, economic sanctions, or human interest stories, they all draw a lot of engagement.
For example, the article ‘Scottish grandfather travels to Ukraine to fight Russians’ published by BBC News gained 551.9K reactions from the audiences on different platforms and was one of the most popular articles about the Russian invasion. But human stories are not the only ones getting attention. Readers want to know what their country is doing in this situation. European audiences are looking at what their leaders have got to say. Just look at the numbers for these stories from different publishers.
Macron says France will spearhead operation to evacuate Mariupol (Politico Europe, 36.5K)
Germany to send Ukraine weapons in a historic shift on military aid (Politico Europe, 35.3K)
Poland’s 10-point plan to save Ukraine (Politico,16.7K)
Although these numbers may not seem super high when compared to the exceptional response to the Scottish grandfather story, they indicate very strong engagement from readers.
The audience is used to the reporting pattern of there always being two sides to war. However, this time, the narrative of an unprovoked invasion, war crimes and atrocities leaves little room to show the Russian “human” side of the Russian army. Therefore, the most attention goes to average Russian citizens.
When talking about the Russian army, articles, and reports about losses (WSJ, 68K) and low morale of Russian soldiers are gaining a lot of attention. But not as much as stories about Russians who are opposing Putin’s regime.
As Russians are the aggressors, the audience seems to grasp at straws that not all Russians support this war. A story about a Russian cosmonaut team who supposedly wore flight suits in the colors of the Ukrainian flag was covered in multiple media outlets and gained a lot of attention from readers. For example, the BBC News article ‘Russia denies cosmonauts board space station in Ukrainian colours’ gained 339.9K reactions across multiple social media platforms. The same story ‘Russian cosmonauts board ISS wearing colours of Ukrainian flag’ covered by The Guardian had 97.7K.
Symbolic gestures of support, which do not affect the war in any capacity, seem to mean a lot to the audiences. Many articles covering public statements have been popular, for example:
Russian official apologizes to Ukraine at climate science meeting (Politico Europe, 31.8K)
Russian ballerina defects to the Netherlands after denouncing Ukraine invasion (The Telegraph, 48.1K)
Russian rapper Oxxxymiron cancels sold-out concert in protest of Ukraine invasion (The Independent, 132.7K)
Moscow teacher sacked for condemning Ukraine invasion is praised by his students (The Telegraph, 104K)
Reports of single-person or mass protests also proved to be fascinating for readers, like The Guardian‘s story ‘Thousands join anti-war protests in Russia after Ukraine invasion’ which gained 137K reactions.
Another story that has led the coverage is a controversial one. A protest from Marina Ovsyanikova, who stormed a broadcast of a Russian propagandist news channel quickly became a number one topic, despite horrible bombings of the Ukrainian cities the same day.
They’re lying to you’: Russian TV employee interrupts news broadcast (The Guardian, 152.9K)
While experts are doubting the authenticity of this gesture, for an international audience, it was seen as an act of defiance, which is reflected in the numbers of people who reacted, commented, posted, or reposted the article.
War is a tough topic, mentally and physically. With unavoidable losses, it is a heavy subject to cover. As more atrocities are uncovered every day, one instinct is to look away; the other is to find the light in the darkness. Human stories always provide a connection between a reader and the hero of the story and bring out different emotions. For example, a New York Times story of an Olympic medalist who was hiding from a bombing in his garage provoked many emotions from the readers (125.4K actions).
What exactly attracts us to human stories? Heroism and defiance from civilians and soldiers certainly pulls readers closer. Consider the tale of a woman who offered Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets, so they grow when the soldiers die, which attracted 310.6K reactions for The Telegraph piece and 201K for The Independent article. Or the blacksmith who pivoted from making medieval armor to producing anti-tank spikes (The Telegraph, 55.1K), or a man towing a Russian tank (The Independent 193.4K), or a farmer doing the same (45.4K). These stories make people feel connected and amazed. Even possibly tragic stories – like soldiers on Snake Island who gave a Russian warship a now-famous crude salutation, and were presumed dead (86.3K reactions for The Guardian and 28.7K for Politico Europe) – can bring out hope and even some laughter from the situation.
Readers connecting with a human interest angle were also drawn to refugees’ success stories. After all, who doesn’t like a success story? Especially, when a person has gone through the most horrible circumstances. Like the woman from The New York Times story who escaped the war and then won the Jerusalem marathon, without much training (100.1K reactions). Or a little girl who sang “Let It Go” in the bomb shelter, fled to safety in Poland, and performed a national anthem on a huge stage (The Guardian, 172.3K). These stories show another side of bravery and resilience, which are so needed in these times.
You might have heard the sentiment that Oscars (or any celebrity news) should not matter much at times of war. And it is a fair point. However, regardless of how disdainful readers are toward famous people, they still have their favorites – with some of whom they created strong parasocial relationships. Moreover, celebrities are opinion leaders who have a large following. And, they may also have a lot of haters which can bring out other kinds of reactions.
In any case, positive or negative, a lot of reactions were drawn by articles about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s anti-war speech (BBC News, 331.3K), Robert De Niro’s address (BBC News, 136.7K), Sean Penn’s documentary plans (The Guardian, 73.3K), or Pink Floyd’s song to support Ukraine (The Guardian, 82.3K).
Then there’s the public figure about whom no one seems to be impartial: Elon Musk. His aid to Ukraine caught the attention of different news outlets and their readerships. While the engagement in articles about him is not as impressive as news about Schwarzenneger or Pink Floyd, for example, stories about Musk by Euronews gained 16.9K reactions and another 30.2K for The Telegraph, so the billionaire seems to always get a solid engagement rate.
Western media and their readers are asking themselves what Putin is thinking right now, why he attacked Ukraine and what he will do next. Trying to get in the head of a political figure of a foreign country is hard, but people are trying.
Here are some examples of articles, trying to tackle this issue.
Putin’s miscalculation ( Politico Europe, 17.6K)
Why Vladimir Putin has already lost his war (The Guardian, 170.7K)
While there are not many stories like these that get published, they are special for a couple of reasons. The engagement rate from the audiences is pretty high, which means that people are anxious to know what is happening inside the Kremlin as much as the journalists. Unlike previous stories presented here, articles about Putin are in a different format. They are long, analytical articles filled with context. There is an assumption that these long reads with heavy analytics are less popular with readers. But the mystery of Putin changes the game.