The Indian media’s silence over a recent study highlighting the deaths of over one million people in 2017 due to pollution is an indication of how newsworthy pollution is – or isn’t – for the media industry, which rides high on political communication. Health is a boring subject for news media and now a new study not only confirms it, but also indicates the harmful impact.
A report titled Hazy Perceptions has concluded that the media in South and Southeast Asia has helped build a hazy public perception of air pollution by reporting it superficially, insufficiently or incorrectly. More than half a million social media posts were analysed between 2015 to 2018 in India and several other countries including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia and Pakistan for the study.
Air pollution causes more than four million deaths each year globally. South and Southeast Asia account for around 1.5 million – or 37 percent – of these deaths, of which India alone contributed 1.2 million deaths in 2017 itself.
“Ninety percent of Indians interviewed across major cities were aware of the air pollution menace but did not know the real reasons behind it”
The key findings of the report state that the public has limited understanding of long-term health consequences of poor air quality. The discussion is typically limited to short-term impact of health risks such as itchy eyes and breathing difficulty rather than chronic diseases and the damaging impact upon vulnerable populations. “There is compelling evidence of an association between air pollution and infant mortality,” as reported by Health Issues India recently. We have aimed to drawn attention also to the effect of air pollution on rates of dementia, diabetes and lung disease in non-smokers.
Another failing of the public discourse is that it does not center around the most important drivers of air pollution. Usually, media reports blame vehicular emissions as main reason behind air pollution than more significant sources like power plants, household fuels and waste burning.
Another study, by Clean Air Collective, showed that ninety percent of Indians interviewed across major cities were aware of the air pollution menace but did not know the real reasons behind it. “This could be partly because of media coverage that doesn’t reflect the current evidence and science,” the report said.
Conversations surrounding the solutions are also very short-term in their scope and restricted to advice on personal protection such as masks or air purifiers. But discourse evaluating existing measures, questioning the lack of hardline anti-pollution policy or any stringent steps taken to ban paddy pollution and requirements to build cleaner energy sources is seldom witnessed.
“The frequency of air pollution discussions vary by time of year, increasing greatly from September through December. That is when the media buzz surrounding the subject increases, compelling governments to take short-term measures. During other months, the volume of social media and news content on air pollution is seen to be very low.”
In 2015, a government committee proposed a concerted and coordinated effort across ministries and the proposals including switching to clean energy sources for cook stoves, public transport and industry, as well as measures to reduce road traffic by raising fuel taxes and parking fees, levying congestion charges, and creating vehicle-free zones and cycle paths. But none of these measures have been implemented.
Air pollution tends to feature in the news cycle based on seasonal variations in air quality and people battling its immediate impact. The frequency of air pollution discussions vary by time of year, increasing greatly from September through December. That is when the media buzz surrounding the subject increases, compelling governments to take short-term measures. During other months, the volume of social media and news content on air pollution is seen to be very low. This can pose a challenge when engaging the public in supporting effective air pollution control, which requires year-round, sustained measures and continued public pressure.
The report recommends that messages and campaigns by the media should consider long-term impacts of pollution and accordingly provide appropriate sustainable solutions. As a watchdog media should hold the government accountable for inaction in the face of the pollution menace and urge policymakers to develop comprehensive policies and enforcement for clean air via year-round, ongoing sustained reductions in important air pollution sources. Stories and campaigns about air pollution harms and solutions should raise awareness of the relationship to climate change. Above all, media professionals and organizations should be informed about credible and relevant sources of data on air pollution health effects, sources and solutions.
Ultimately, the media should wake up to the environmental threat that is silently killing millions across the nation. It needs to take responsibility and give more power to the anti-pollution movement in the country by becoming their voice and making them a part of the national political discourse as it’s only when media would consider air pollution newsworthy both government and the people will realise its significance.