When tragedy becomes banal: Why news consumers experience crisis fatigue

When Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by land, air and sea on Feb. 24, 2022, the images of war were conveyed to dismayed onlookers around the world. Far from the action, many of us became aware of the unprovoked aggression by reading online coverage or watching TV to see explosions and people running from danger and crowding into underground bunkers.

Half a year later, the violence continues. But for those who have not been directly affected by the events, this ongoing war and its casualties have been shifting to the periphery of many people’s attention.

This turning away makes sense.

Being attentive to realities like war is often painful, and people are not well-equipped to keep a sustained focus on ongoing or traumatic occurrences.

In addition, since the war in Ukraine began, many other events have arisen to occupy the world’s attention. These include droughts, wildfires, storms tied to global warming, mass shootings and the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

As the philosopher-psychologist William James asked, “Does not every sudden shock, appearance of a new object, or change in a sensation, create a real interruption?”

Ongoing tragic events, like the assault on Ukraine, can recede from people’s attention because many may feel overwhelmed, helpless or drawn to other urgent issues. This phenomenon is called “crisis fatigue.”