Crisis Fatigue

"Bad news is so depressing"

Every day we talk to many people and for every person we talk to the quality of conversation varies; some conversations seem to be more successful than others. Have you ever considered why this happens? Why are there so many misunderstandings? Let’s have a look what happens during a conversation.

I would like to introduce one communication theory, which explains that communication is more than giving information.

Friedrich Schulz von Thun (2010) developed the four-side model, or the so called four-ear model, to explain what else is transferred in addition to factual information. In the four-side model, Schulz von Thun states that in every communication there is always someone who is sending a message and always someone who is receiving a message. Building upon previous theory presented by Paul Watzlawick (1993), Schulz von Thun distinguishes further between four messages which accompany any given communication. The conversations we have and messages we sent in addition can consciously or unconsciously underly the communication process. In this way communication is a two-way model of interacting with someone else. Watzlawick (1993) summarises this with the axiom: “you cannot not communicate”.

Each side of the model from Schulz von Thun can be framed with a question:

  • 'What do I inform you about?' When you communicate with another person the main intention is to get a message across. This is called factual information
  • 'What do I want you to do?' The second side of the model is looking at the appeal
  • 'What do I reveal about myself?' The third side is pointing towards self-revelation
  • 'How do we interrelate?' The fourth side in this model is the relationship. This relationship is important, and depends on the depth, emotional distance, and history between the sender and receiver.

Both the sender and the receiver process this information simultaneously. For example, how the sender communicates a message is important for the receiver; the intent behind a message has a huge impact on the whole communication process. Considering the four questions is important for both sender and receiver to communicate in a positive and constructive way.

Schulz von Thun. (2010). Miteinander reden.

We must bear in mind that the information we receive and the information we are sending is processed through an individual filter of interpretation: Human communication is therefore a complicated process of interaction which includes the underlying beliefs, appeals, relationships, and self-revelation. All of these aspects are influencing how people perceive any message that has been sent.

Knowing this theoretical background is important as it allows us to better consider the communication of risk. In the age of the pandemic the news and media have reported a huge number of news stories, scientific fact, and a variety of individual experiences related to the pandemic in the last few months. In this deluge of information, it was (and still is) difficult to know what was right or wrong, true or false. We were overwhelmed by news and forced to selectively digest information to quickly learn and adapt how and what people learn, adapt, and react is therefore highly influenced by the media.

The media plays a crucial role in society as does the information they are choose to convey. But what makes the cut? The training portal ‘Mediafirst’ describes four key aspects for journalists in the video ‘What makes a story newsworthy?’

To get a message to the public it needs to be:

  • Timely or topical
  • Relevant
  • Unusual
  • Human

In essence, journalists have an interest in writing timely articles which are relevant for the reader or listener.

The point, “unusual”, is often perceived as sensationalism and often vilified as a cynical attempt to grab attention by the media outlet in order to drive business. Readers become interested and are emotionally engaged. But whilst this may provide a source of income for a business what kind of impact does this have on the listener or reader?

This question underlies part of a PhD study from Elfriede Derrer-Merk with the topic: “COVID-19: Does uncertainty impact resilience on older people?” (Supervisors: Kate M Bennett, Scott Ferson, Adam Mannis). In this qualitative survey 33 people age 65+ had been asked how they experienced the reporting of the pandemic.

The preliminary results demonstrate that it is trust in the media and in the government that dominates how people perceive the news and to what degree the news impacts their life. David Ropeik, describes this effect in the context of risk communication:

"Risk is a subjective affair. It's how those facts feel"

Respondent’s to the survey largely condemned how the risk of getting the virus was communicated:

  • 'A lot of the time, not very good because they tend to over-exaggerate. They always tend to pick on the bad points. (...)' (F7)
  • ‘I think the media have stirred too much. They get lots of facts wrong and I don’t really know what to believe.’ (F9)
  • ‘Sensationalism. I resent the fact that they put big headlines how many people die (…)’ (M8)

Many respondents said they had lost trust in the media’s reporting of the pandemic and that they tended to avoid news about COVID-19 because the torrent of bad news couldn’t be processed in a constructive way. The respondents became more aversive if they had to shield or are self-isolating due to underlying health issues. The underlying reason for this aversion was due to a negative impact on mental well-being; the reported news was often experienced as depressing and triggered anxiety for various reasons. The experience of getting depressed from the news or having more anxiety to catch the virus is striking in the qualitative survey. Many of them reported that they stopped watching the news.

  • ‘But I suppose the one anxiety I’ve had is that if I have a different health problem apart from COVID I might not have access to whatever help I would need, so I suppose the health services, what they could do is reassure me that other health needs are going to be looked after’. (F10)
  • ‘It is awful but you don’t need to see it day after day and some elderly people it would probably affect them badly, they’d get depressed about it.’ (F2)
  • ‘I was getting too engrossed in it and that was making me feel very depressed (…)’ (F11)
  • ‘I would say don’t listen to the news too much because it can be very depressing’. (F5)

It needs to be considered that every person is processing the information they receive in an individual way. Individual circumstances, and the suggestion from the Government that people over 70 need to shield, puts people in older age demographics under higher pressure to digest the information from the media. The complex combination of individual information processing, the social isolation as a consequence of shielding, and the perceived concentration of the media on ‘bad news’ can lead to increased mental health problems within people age 65+.

The risk communication about the pandemic needs to be questioned. Communicating risk is a challenging task, especially in times of a pandemic. As demonstrated in the quotes above, many people lost trust in the reported news. The question is now: How can people be won back to listen to important news, and how can the trust be re-established, ideally without impacting an individual’s mental health?

The question of the future is: How could the risks be communicated in general whilst limiting the risks of triggering mental health problems, whilst the message remains in warning and informing the public about the pandemic?


  1. Friedemann Schulz von Thun. (2010). Miteinander reden 1. Störungen und Klärungen: Allgemeine Psychologie der Kommunikation. Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag; Auflage: 48. Hamburg (ISBN-10: 3499174898)
  2. Paul Watzlawick. (1993). The situation is hopeless, but not serious. The pursuit of unhappiness. Norton & Company. Reprint 1. London
  3. The COVID-19 Psychological Research Consortium. (