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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2017  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 41-50

Online media coverage of air pollution risks and current policies in India: A content analysis

1 Vital Strategies, New York, United States of America
2 World Health Organization Regional Office for South-East Asia, New Delhi, India

Date of Web Publication29-Aug-2017

Correspondence Address:
Nandita Murukutla
Vital Strategies, New York
United States of America
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2224-3151.213791

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Background Air pollution is of particular concern in India, which contains 11 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. Media coverage of air pollution issues plays an important role in influencing public opinion and increasing citizen demand for action on clean air policy. Hence, this study was designed to assess news coverage of air pollution in India and its implications for policy advancement.
Methods Articles published online between 1 January 2014 and 31 October 2015 that discussed air pollution in India were systematically content analysed. From 6435 articles in the national media and 271 articles in the international media, a random selection of 500 articles (400 from national and 100 from international media) were analysed and coded by two independent coders, after high inter-rater reliability (kappa statistic above 0.8) was established.
Results There was an increase in the number of news stories on air pollution in India in the national media over the study period; 317 (63%) stories described the risk to health from air pollution as moderately to extremely severe, and 393 (79%) stories described the situation as needing urgent action. Limited information was provided on the kinds of illnesses that can result from exposure. Less than 30% of stories in either media specifically mentioned the common illnesses resulting from air pollution. Very few articles in either media mentioned the population groups most at risk from air pollution, such as children or older people. Vehicles were presented most often as the cause of air pollution in India (in over 50% of articles in both national and international media). Some of the most important sources of air pollution were mentioned less often: 6% of national and 18% of international media articles mentioned unclean sources of household energy; 3% of national and 9% of international media articles mentioned agricultural field burning. Finally, the majority of articles (405; 81%) did not mention any specific institution or organization – such as the government or industry groups – as the primary responsible stakeholder, thus leaving ambiguous the organizations whose leadership was necessary to mitigate air pollution.
Conclusion Gaps exist in the current media discourse on air pollution, suggesting the need for strengthening engagement with the media as a means of creating citizen engagement and enabling policy action. Through greater elaboration of the health burdens and evidence-based policy actions, the media can play a critical role in galvanizing India's action on air quality. These data may suggest opportunities for media advocacy and greater public and policy engagement to address issues around air quality in India.

Keywords: air pollution, content analysis, India, media advocacy, news coverage

How to cite this article:
Murukutla N, Negi NS, Puri P, Mullin S, Onyon L. Online media coverage of air pollution risks and current policies in India: A content analysis. WHO South-East Asia J Public Health 2017;6:41-50

How to cite this URL:
Murukutla N, Negi NS, Puri P, Mullin S, Onyon L. Online media coverage of air pollution risks and current policies in India: A content analysis. WHO South-East Asia J Public Health [serial online] 2017 [cited 2022 Dec 2];6:41-50. Available from: http://www.who-seajph.org/text.asp?2017/6/2/41/213791

  Background Top

Air pollution, a global public health threat, is of particular concern in densely populated rapidly developing countries. Premature deaths from air pollution have been estimated as 6.5 million annually,[1] and it has been further estimated that two thirds of deaths attributable to air pollution occur in low- and middle-income countries.[1] In India, which is home to 11 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world,[2] over one million individuals die annually as a result of exposure to household air pollution alone.[3] Policy action to address air pollution in India is urgently needed.[3],[4]

Public opinion and citizen demand play a crucial role in building political will and mobilizing policy action in health matters.[5] Informed populations may make healthier personal choices and can also demand health-promoting policies from their governments. In public health, the mobilization of public opinion through mass media, and coordinated action from governments and other key stakeholders, has been critical to advancing policies in such diverse areas as tobacco control and HIV.[5],[6],[7] Historically, public opinion and citizen demand have also been critical to advancing environmental health agendas, including for air quality, in a number of countries around the world.[8],[9],[10],[11],[12]

The news media can play a powerful role in shaping public opinion and setting agendas for clean air. News reporting can build an understanding of the causes, consequences and potential solutions for air pollution,[10] and, through frequent and prominent reporting, it can help to establish certain issues as urgent public priorities.[13],[14] Conversely, when news reporting is inaccurate, it can perpetuate misunderstandings and misdirect the public's support for solutions.[10] Hence, to ensure that the public is appropriately informed and provided with the necessary information to be effectively engaged and to demand evidence-based policies, it is important to understand the current state of news media reportage and to engage with the news media, as a critical stakeholder, to advance evidence-based public policy.

News media coverage and environmental policy in India

India has a thriving newspaper business, with circulation growing each year.[15] While Hindi newspapers dominate, English newspapers are the second largest in number.[16] With the growth of internet penetration in India, Indian newspapers have invested in digital media, and most major newspapers now publish an online version of their paper.[15],[17],[18 The Indian media plays an important role in shaping social norms, policies and politics.[19] Indeed, recent studies have demonstrated how media content in India has shaped discussions around issues such as climate change.[20]

Management of air quality in India is primarily the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and is regulated under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981.[21],[22] The Central Pollution Control Board, along with its state counterparts, is the designated authority for the management of air quality. However, as the harmful health effects of air pollution have become increasingly clear, the role of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare as an active advocate for clean air in the interest of human health has increased.[23] Indeed, there has been some recognition of this in India, as the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has established an innovative high-level multisectoral steering committee on air pollution, which has formulated a set of recommendations for coordinated actions to reduce the major sources of air pollution and to strengthen the existing health infrastructure and capacity to mitigate its health impacts.[24],[25]

Rationale for this study

The impetus for this study was an apparent significant increase in the volume of news reporting on air pollution in India during 2014–2015. It was hypothesized that this increase may be linked to the significant number of key global events that were relevant to air pollution during this time period, as listed next.

  • May 2014: the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its database of ambient air pollution in cities.[26] Reporting of these data caused commentators to replace Beijing with New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world, thereby attracting both media attention and controversy.[27]
  • May 2015: the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution (WHA68.8) that recognized air pollution as the world's largest single environmental health risk and provided ministries of health with a mandate to redouble their efforts to identify, address and prevent the health impacts of air pollution.[28]
  • September 2015: the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which identified air pollution as integral to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals related to health (SDG3), affordable and clean energy (SDG7) and sustainable cities and communities (SDG11 ).[29],[30]
  • November 2015: the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) resulted in adoption of a legally binding treaty to address atmospheric pollutants, including those that create air pollution, to protect people and the environment.[31],[32]
  • December 2015: the Paris Agreement on climate, which builds on COP21,[31],[32] for the first time, brought all nations together to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects, with enhanced support to assist developing countries to do so.

India's agreement to the World Health Assembly Resolution 68.8,[29] the Agenda for Sustainable Development,[29],[30] and the COP21 global agreements[31],[32] was significant, given its population size, the current levels of health and environmental burden, and its projected economic growth.

Given the role of news media in shaping policy actions, a systematic content analysis of news stories published online in the period 2014–2015 was undertaken, to assess the news media's prioritization of air pollution in India, its perception of severity and urgency for action, and the reported sources and policy solutions.

  Methods Top

The study was conducted between 1 October and 15 December 2015. Relevant articles in English published between 1 January 2014 and 31 October 2015 were included. This time frame was chosen purposively to encompass the key global events relevant to air pollution listed above, plus relevant national events such as the Indian national elections in May 2014 and the launch of a new Indian National Air Quality Index in April 2015.[33]

Sampling of news articles

Articles for analysis were identified through two newsmonitoring services that were available to the authors – Google News and Meltwater – using the search terms “air pollution” and “India”. Alternative search terms like “smog”, “haze” and “air quality” were not used for this study, since air pollution was found to be the more frequently used term. Additionally, terms like “haze” and “smog” tended to co-occur with the term “air pollution”, and, given the high volume of articles already obtained with the term “air pollution”, the decision was made to not further expand the search terms, in order to keep the scope of the study manageable.

Articles were obtained from online versions of papers, since it was established that all prominent newspapers simultaneously publish web and print versions of their papers daily.[15],[18] Articles from both Indian national and international media were included; the latter were included only if issues of air pollution in India were specifically mentioned.

Once retrieved, all articles were carefully cleaned and sorted. Personal blogs, aggregators and non-relevant articles that were mistakenly captured in the search were excluded.

Articles for analysis were classified by source as web news (if only printed online with no print version available); articles posted on web pages of television news stations; web versions of print newspapers; or web versions of print magazines. The final cleaned sample of articles was 6706, comprising 6435 articles from Indian national media and 271 articles from international media.

Sampling of a subset for content analysis

Given the large volume of articles, a subset of 500 articles was systematically selected for content analysis. To provide for an analysable subset, it was determined that 100 articles would be selected from the international media, and the remaining 400 from Indian national media. To ensure systematic random selection of articles for coding, the complete set of articles identified was separately ordered by date, and in each list every nth article was selected to achieve the desired 400 articles from the Indian national media and 100 from the international media.

In addition to presenting the findings in total across all 500 articles, the findings in this study are also presented separately by international and national media in all tables and within the text, as appropriate. This was done as both a point of interest to compare the national and international media reportage and because the subsets comprised very different proportions of the national (6.2%) and international (36.9%) complete sets.

Coding frame for content analysis

A coding frame for content analysis was developed and included the following topics: section in which the article was published; article theme or aspects of air pollution described; health risks mentioned; sources and solutions mentioned; primary responsible stakeholder (e.g. government) mentioned; and overall tone towards the issue of air pollution in India.

To reduce errors due to subjectivity, questions were intentionally designed to require objective assessments, such as recording the presence/absence of mention of specific issues. In a few instances, the coders were called upon to make subjective assessments: in particular, in a series of questions that used five-point Likert scales, they were asked to gauge aspects, including the article's tone (where 1 = very negative, 2 = somewhat negative, 3 = mixed, 4 = somewhat positive and 5 = very positive); its presentation of the severity of the health risks from exposure to air pollution (1 = not at all severe, 2 = somewhat severe, 3 = moderately severe, 4 = very severe, 5 = extremely severe); the perceived urgency of action required (1 = not at all urgent, 2 = somewhat urgent, 3 = urgent, 4 = very urgent and 5 = extremely urgent); and the expressed imminence in experiencing health effects from exposure to air pollution (to be experienced right away or in some distant future).

Two independent coders coded the articles after an intense 3-day training on the coding frame and after any ambiguities in question wording or meaning were resolved. To ensure uniform implementation of the coding frame, particularly on the subjective assessments, a methodology established in the literature was used:[34],[35],[36] specifically, both coders simultaneously but separately coded the same 77 articles (15% of articles), and once inter-rater reliability, using kappa statistics, was found to be high (over 0.8) on all questions, including the subjective assessments, coding continued on the remaining articles separately and simultaneously.

Data analysis

The complete set of 6706 articles, comprising 6435 from national media and 271 from international media, were examined for month-wise frequency. Content analysis was restricted to the subset of 500 articles. The coders’ observations were entered into SPSS (IBM Corp. Released 2013. IBM SPSS Statistics for Windows, Version 22.0. Armonk, NY: IBM Corp.). Frequencies on all questions were computed.

  Results Top

Frequency of articles

There were clear time trends in reporting of issues related to air pollution in both national and international media (see [Figure 1]). In the national media, there was variability but the linear trend indicated a steady increase from January 2014 to October 2015 in the frequency of articles that reported on air pollution. The variability around this trend included a peak from around April to May 2015. In the international media, the linear trend was constant but there was substantial variability, including two distinct peaks in May 2014 and in April 2015. The trend lines for the national and international article sets and their respective subsets mirrored one another closely (data not shown), indicating that the systematic sampling procedure was successful in creating two reliably representative subsets of articles for coding.
Figure 1: Month-wise publication of articles containing the terms “air pollution” and “India”

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Article characteristics

Results of the content analysis are presented in the text that follows and, unless stated otherwise, refer to the total set (n = 500) of articles analysed; selected results are summarized in the tables. With respect to article characteristics, most of the 500 articles were obtained from news sites – primarily online versions of print newspapers, and, secondarily, websites of television news channels. The articles were most often news stories (n = 455, 91%; see [Table 1]). Traditionally, print publications have clearly marked sections, such as Editorial, News, Opinion, etc. With the online articles in this study, section placement could not be determined in most cases (n = 370, 74%); however, in the few cases where placement could be determined, less than 4% of the articles were found on the front page. In 208 articles (163 national and 45 international) where the section of the newspaper/magazine could be determined, the stories appeared most often in the City (national: n = 29, 18%; international: n = 15, 33%) or in the Environment sections (national: n = 18, 11%; international: n = 7, 16%).
Table 1: Characteristics of articles containing the terms “air pollution” and “India”

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A total of 225 (45%) articles were accompanied by an illustration, of which 88% (n = 198) were photographs. With respect to the emotional tone conveyed by the illustrations (negative, positive or neutral), 110 (49%) had a negative tone (national: n = 66; international: n = 44). Examples of negative images included those that elicited negative emotions through depictions of heavy and disgusting pollution in places where people reside.

In addition to India, the countries most often mentioned were China and the United States of America (USA). The countries other than India were more likely to be mentioned in international than in national articles. Among the 400 national articles, 62 (16%) mentioned China and 37 (9%) mentioned the USA, whereas in the 100 international articles, China and the USA were mentioned in 23 (23%) and 7 (7%) articles, respectively. New Delhi was the city most often referred to in both national (n = 173, 43%) and international (n = 62, 62%) media; Beijing and Mumbai were the cities next most frequently mentioned.

Air pollution topics, causes, terms and solutions reported

The most common primary theme of articles was the extent of air pollution in India (n = 139, 28%), followed by the health effects of air pollution and solutions to address air pollution (see [Table 2]). Far more articles highlighted or opined about possible strategies to address issues of air pollution than its causes: in the national media, 19 (5%) articles described the causes of air pollution, while 74 (19%) raised possible solutions; in the international articles, 10 (10%) described the causes of air pollution, while 14 (14%) raised possible solutions to the issue.
Table 2: Reporting of air pollution topics, terms and sources

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Terms used most often to describe or characterize air pollution were “PM2.5” (i.e. particulate matter with diameter <2.5 μm) in 160 (32%) of the articles, “PM10” (i.e. particulate matter with diameter <10 μm) in 80 (16%) of the articles, and “air quality index” in 59 (12%) of the articles. Constituents of air pollution like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide were rarely mentioned. Additionally, outdoor (ambient) sources of air pollution were more often mentioned than were indoor (household) sources, such as cooking with unclean fuels or cooking with inefficient cooking stoves.

In the total set of 500 articles, vehicles were most frequently mentioned (n = 279, 56%) as the source of air pollution in India. This was followed by power plants (n = 104, 21%) and diesel-powered electricity-generation sets (or “gen-sets”, which are used during power outages; n = 72, 14%). While the second-most often cited source of air pollution in both national and international articles was power plants (n = 86, 22% and n = 18, 18%, respectively), national articles less frequently mentioned cooking with unclean fuels than the international media (n = 24, 6% in national versus n = 18, 18% in international media). Finally, while among national articles, diesel-powered gen-sets were the third most frequently mentioned source, among international articles, factories, and inefficient cooking stoves were the next most frequently mentioned. International articles were also more likely to mention dust and construction; agricultural, wood and waste burning; and brick kilns than were the national articles (see [Table 2]).

Health effects

While negative health effects of air pollution were mentioned in general terms, most articles did not describe the specific kinds of health effects that one might experience as a result of exposure to air pollution (see [Table 3]): 164 (33%) described general health effects and 121 (24%) described deaths or mortality attributable to air pollution. When a specific illness was mentioned, it was most likely to be cardiovascular disease (n = 67, 13%). Lung diseases were mentioned less often. Overall, articles in international media were more likely than those in national media to mention a specific health effect. Finally, very few articles mentioned populations that are particularly at risk from air pollution, such as children and the elderly.
Table 3: Reported health risks of air pollution, perceived severity and urgency for action

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The overall tone of most articles (n = 385, 77%) towards air pollution in India was negative, with international articles more likely to be negative in tone than the national ones (see [Table 3]). The articles’ tone towards specific burdens created by air pollution was likewise negative: 365 (73%) articles described the environmental burdens created by air pollution in a negative tone; 313 (63%) articles described the health burdens created by air pollution in a negative tone. A total of 317 (63%) articles presented the health risks of exposure to air pollution as moderately to extremely severe.

The articles also suggested a need for urgent action: 393 (79%) articles presented the issue of air pollution as requiring urgent action, with a higher proportion of the international media than the national media suggesting urgent action (n = 89, 89% versus n = 304, 76%). However, while air pollution was frequently presented as a severe and urgent issue, few articles reported that the health effects were imminent or likely to be experienced in the short term. Only 26 (7%) articles in the national media and 3 (3%) in the international media suggested that some of the negative health effects could be felt immediately.

Policy and individual actions to address air pollution

Policy measures to address air pollution that were most frequently mentioned in all articles included monitoring of air pollution (n = 73, 15%), establishment of emission and testing standards for vehicles (n = 42, 8%), and traffic restrictions (n = 33, 7%; see [Table 4]). Among national articles, increased taxes on polluting sources was mentioned in only 14 (4%) articles and increased availability of clean energy sources was mentioned in only 23 (6%) articles. In both national and international media, the following policy solutions were mentioned in 5% or less of the articles: removal of subsidies, increasing the price of diesel, and reducing the price of compressed natural gas. Less than 1% of articles mentioned the co-benefits, like reduced road injuries, increased physical activity or mitigation of climate change, which could accrue from the implementation of policies to address air pollution.
Table 4: Actions to address air pollution and support policies

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Individual actions for protection from air pollution were cited only infrequently. These included reducing vehicle use (n = 33, 7%), increasing public transport (n = 26, 5%), purchasing better grade fuels (n = 24, 5%) and the use of clean cooking stoves (n = 18, 4%).

Responsible and accountable authorities

The majority of articles (n = 405, 81%) were silent on the issue of who should be held responsible or most accountable on air pollution in India (see [Table 4]). International articles were slightly more likely to hold the government responsible than were national articles (n = 28, 28% versus n = 56, 14%). The tone of articles towards the government or other institutions was likewise mixed.

Most articles did not mention any institutions or authorities. The entities most frequently mentioned included: the Indian national government, WHO and the Indian state government. The international media more often mentioned WHO than did the national media. When WHO was mentioned, it was in the context of referring to its database of air pollution in cities,[26] and its Air quality guidelines,[37] which inform policymakers and provide appropriate health-based targets for management of air quality in countries. Programmes of the Government of India, like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission)[38],[39] and the Smart Cities Mission,[40] which could drive improved policies on air pollution, were mentioned in only 2 and 1 articles, respectively, in the national media and never in the international media.

  Discussion Top

This study found a significant volume of reporting on issues related to air pollution in India but also important gaps and missed opportunities that may guide future engagement with the media by parties – including the government – who are interested in seeing increased citizen engagement and strengthened policy action on air quality.

The study found a steady increase in reporting on issues around air pollution in the national media between 2014 and 2015. In the international media, the linear trend in reporting over the period of study was at a constant level but the month-wise variations included two peaks around May 2014 and around April 2015, probably coinciding with the release by WHO of data on deteriorating air quality in cities and the announcements of a new Indian National Air Quality Index and the plan to install new monitoring stations across the country,[33] which were suggestive of increased government intent to act on air pollution in India.

The media content was primarily focused on the extent of air pollution during this period; its tone was negative and the articles described India's air pollution as a severe problem requiring urgent action. However, most coverage of the issue was in the form of news reports on the extent and relative scale of the problem of air pollution in India. There were few editorials from key influencers that could have served as opportunities for calling for decisive action. Furthermore, the focus on the national capital, New Delhi, neglected other parts of the country with similarly poor air quality. It has been noted elsewhere that other parts of India have received insufficient policy attention and action.[41]

The prominent theme in the media was the general health burden and overall mortality resulting from exposure to air pollution. However, there was little specificity and detail on the kinds of health burdens, including the kinds of illnesses that could develop from or be exacerbated by exposure to air pollution. Likewise, there was rare mention of the groups that are most vulnerable to exposure to air pollution, such as the elderly and children. Thus, the news media missed an opportunity to educate the public on the health harms of exposure to air pollution, including the health effects of varied levels of exposure – namely, the varied health impacts of shortterm versus seasonal spikes versus cumulative, chronic longterm exposures, with the last being the most responsible for the health burden attributable to air pollution.

There was limited reporting on what is meant by air pollution and the sources of air pollution in India. While PM2.5 was most frequently referred to as a measure of air pollution, few articles discussed its constituents and their harmful effects. Additionally, the preponderance of articles described outdoor or ambient sources of air pollution. Both national and international articles focused on vehicles as the primary source of air pollution in India, followed by power plants. International articles were more likely than national articles to mention other sources of air pollution that have been found to be major contributors in some Indian cities, such as brick kilns, unclean fuels, inefficient stoves, agricultural field burning and waste burning.[21] In some cases, this order of prominence is inconsistent with the known data on sources of pollution affecting human health.[21] Most notably, while household air pollution has been found to be a major source of air pollution in India, including as a source contributing to outdoor air pollution – recent estimates even suggest that as much as 30% of ambient air pollution in south Asia, including India, is caused by household air pollution[42] – there was very little mention of this source of pollution. Thus, through their frequent and prominent mention in the media, certain sources of pollution may have been perceived as greater sources of the problem, even if this is inconsistent with the current data on sources of air pollution. Consequently, the media reportage and prioritization may have had the effect of misleading public attention and policy priorities for action towards certain sources over others.

There were, likewise, missed media opportunities for highlighting solutions to addressing air pollution, particularly in calling for a comprehensive air-quality management system. The national media was most likely to mention air-quality monitoring, testing standards and traffic restrictions as policy responses to air pollution. However, only 4% mentioned increasing taxes on polluting sources. The international media were more likely to mention a “polluter-pays tax” and increasing access to clean energy. Both national and international articles missed opportunities to advocate for other fiscal measures, like removal of subsidies, increasing the price of diesel and reducing the price of compressed natural gas. Both national and international media also missed the opportunity to mention the co-benefits of integrated land use and transportation strategies that not only reduce air pollution but also yield additional health benefits, including increased physical activity, reduced obesity and reduced injuries.[43],[44] Most importantly, both media missed opportunities to advocate for a comprehensive air-quality management plan that addresses the chronic air pollution in India, and not just the episodic peaks that have triggered emergency actions. This focus of the reporting may have thus been at least partially responsible for leading government priorities and actions towards emergency actions, such as the implementation of the odd–even rule in New Delhi, first implemented from 1–15 January 2016, to reduce air pollution through reducing vehicular congestion. This emergency measure, versions of which have been used in other jurisdictions like Paris or Mexico City, restricts the ability of vehicles to drive on the roads based on their registration numbers: those with odd numbers are allowed on the roads on odd-number dates and those with even numbers on even-number ones.

Finally, most articles were either silent or unclear in calling for government leadership to address air pollution. The government was mentioned in less than 20% of the articles. Among these mentions, state governments and environment ministries rightly received the focus of attention, but health departments, which can provide the powerful public health justification for clean air action, were rarely mentioned. Well-funded, flagship government programmes that could address air pollution were also rarely mentioned. In particular, the link to two programmes that have otherwise received significant government backing, as well as media and public attention, was missed. First, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) is a well-known flagship government campaign to address sanitation, particularly open-defecation and waste management,[38] but it may also address air pollution.[39],[45] Second, the Smart Cities Mission,[40] a major urban development programme to improve livability and economic progress of urban areas, with a strong emphasis on technology solutions, could have been called upon urgently to address air pollution as a core issue in the delivery of these programmes. Finally, very few articles called for the industry to show leadership in addressing air pollution.

The strengths of this study lie in the significant period of time considered for analysis, the large volume of articles analysed and the comprehensiveness and depth of the content analysis. Nonetheless, there were some limitations to the study. The search terms were restricted to “air pollution” and “India” and did not include articles that referred to air pollution as solely smog or haze. However, national articles tended to primarily use the term “air pollution”, and the alternative terms were more common in international media and most tended to co-occur with the primary term “air pollution”. Second, this study was restricted to only English language articles. While English media arguably hold influence in India, particularly among the higher socioeconomic groups, and while the government and other stakeholders are invested in the representation of India in the international media, the regional press – particularly in Hindi – is highly influential in the numbers it reaches and the influences it wields on local politics. Future studies may thus consider analysis of Indian regional media for the study of similar issues.

  Conclusion Top

This study has identified the many positive developments in media reporting on air pollution: the issue had increasingly become salient in the national media, with appropriate communication of the severity of air pollution in India and the urgent need for action. The media had also rightly identified the need for policy measures to counter the poor air quality observed in India.

However, there were many gaps in reporting observed, as well as missed opportunities for further galvanizing public action. While the health harms of air pollution were generally reported, the varied illnesses resulting from air pollution were not specifically mentioned, and the populations that are particularly vulnerable were not mentioned or warned. There was limited understanding of the causes of air pollution, and the volume of reporting slanted towards vehicles and ambient sources, when other sources – particularly household ones – are significant contributors in India that require action. Likewise, discussion of policy options tended to focus on better monitoring of air quality and traffic restrictions to reduce emissions, which are an important part but not the whole or a balanced picture. Other recommended measures, such as taxes on polluting sources, subsidies and improved infrastructure for access to clean energy, were less often mentioned in the context of addressing air pollution. Not only does this represent a lost opportunity to address air pollution, but some of these measures – like improved public transport – have been recognized to have significant co-benefits, reducing the burden of noncommunicable diseases and reducing road injuries and deaths. For these cross-sectoral policies to be implemented, a strong and accountable government needs to be at the forefront, and health departments must play an active part in advancing the health perspective in policies for clean air.

Future engagements with the media must seek to redress many of the gaps identified in this study. Increased specificity about the burden of exposure to air pollution, including advice for the groups most vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution, would serve an important educational purpose. Greater elaboration in the media, particularly by key influencers, on the true sources of and solutions to air pollution can help trigger policy action. Calls on the government to play a leadership role, through strengthening data systems and building an air-quality management system, which are evidence-based approaches found to be globally successful, would help trigger public support and enable strengthened policy action.

Source of support: A grant for this research was received from the World Health Organization Regional Office for South-East Asia.

Conflict of interest: None declared

Authorship: All authors worked on the study approach and design and NM, NSN, PP and LO contributed to the development of the research protocol and materials. NM, NSN and PP supervised the research work. NSN produced data tables, NM and NSN supervised the analysis, and SM and LO assisted in interpretation of the findings. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

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