Media can’t turn its back on war in Ukraine

We must now wonder if the media’s reduced coverage of Ukraine actually is helping to make Vladimir Putin’s gamble less of a gamble — and more of a sure bet.

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A boy wrapped in Ukrainian national flag holds a Ukrainian national flag as he stands on top of a Russian military vehicles displayed in the downtown area on August 21, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. On Wednesday, Ukraine celebrates its 1991 declaration of independence from the USSR. Wednesday also marks six months since Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

A boy is wrapped in and waves the Ukrainian national flag as he stands on top of a Russian military vehicle displayed in downtown Kyiv on Aug. 21.


One of the things that has worried me in the last few months is the apparent reduced coverage the news media are giving to the war in Ukraine. This seems especially the case when compared to the greater and more prominent media coverage early on following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Of note is the fact that, even when the media covers Ukraine, it seems to take a back seat to other stories that the media judge are more important. Since the start of the war — six months ago this week, on Feb. 24 — these are just a few of the issues deemed salient by the media: skyrocketing inflation, the extraordinarily high cost of gasoline, reports of and about the Jan. 6 Committee, increasing gun violence and legislative arguments about how to solve this problem, growing divisions within both the Democratic and Republican parties and speculations about the outcome of the 2022 election horse race.

Why is this significant and why should it worry us? To begin with, Russia experts initially thought Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a calculated gamble. Putin, it will be recalled, firmly believed he could easily and quickly win the war, taking over the entirety of Ukraine.

Opinion bug


Putin’s wager was predicated on what some argued was his highly questionable assumption that Americans would lose interest in and tire of nuanced news stories every day about Ukraine. Putin’s gamble also was tied to his belief that NATO countries and other members of the European community over time might not remain unified — something absolutely essential for Ukraine to succeed.

To understand whether Putin’s gamble was a wise one or a foolish bet, it might be useful to explore the relevant findings of communication researchers about the impact of news coverage. For many years, mass media scholars have documented what is called the “agenda setting” function of the media — a theory first developed by Max McCombs, a faculty member in the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Journalism.

His research and that of other communication scholars demonstrated how the quantity and perspective of media stories have the capacity to affect what the public thinks is important. To be clear, this is a far different claim than assertions that the media influences people’s stands on particular issues. Put simply, “what” stories news outlets choose to cover and “how” they choose to cover them may set the public’s agenda.

As a result, we now must wonder if the media’s current coverage of Ukraine actually is helping to make Putin’s gamble less of a gamble — and more of a sure bet.

What a shame it would be if the outcome of the Ukraine war even partially is influenced by the media’s coverage of the news. Perhaps I have become cynical, but this effect would not surprise me.

In an age of 24/7 news cycles, the war in Ukraine — including the mounting evidence of military losses — no longer receives significant attention by the media and hence may no longer be on the public radar. Maybe Putin’s assumption was right.

Richard Cherwitz, Ph.D., is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial professor emeritus in the Moody College of Communication and founding director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin.

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