Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: The World Health Organization has characterized air pollution as the biggest environmental health crisis facing the world today. Air pollution is linked with increased hospital admissions, exacerbation of acute and chronic illness, and increased mortality. A salient issue when addressing adverse effects from air pollution is that the risks are not readily perceptible to most non-scientists, nor are protective behaviors commonly known. To form risk appraisals and identify protective behaviors, individuals may rely on mass media reports. News coverage also influences public interests and regulations around air pollution. However, little is known about the content of air pollution news coverage. We used an agenda-setting approach to analyze news portrayals of air pollution, and the Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) to characterize the amount of threat and efficacy information in news coverage.
Methods: A content analysis was conducted using LexisNexis. Four years (2011 to 2014) worth of newspaper articles from the newspapers of record for the United States (New York Times and Washington Post) were analyzed. A constructed week sampling approach, using six-constructed week a year, looking at newspaper articles that focused on air pollution resulted in 114 articles that were fully coded.
Results: Nearly all articles about air pollution concerned outdoor pollution (86%) exclusively. Governmental sources were present in most articles (78%). Business and industry sources (29%) were present in more articles compared to either academics and scientists (26%) or health and environmental activist groups (27%). While almost 30% of the articles mentioned a solution to air pollution, only 13% used a public health frame. One-quarter (24%) of the articles mentioned air pollution as a health threat, yet only 6% of the articles mentioned individual risk-reducing measures (i.e., using filters, avoiding physical activity during peak pollution hours, and staying indoors).
Conclusions: Outdoor air pollution was over-reported considering that it accounts for fewer premature deaths compared to indoor air pollution. The heavy dependency on governmental sources – excluding public health officials – in air pollution coverage potentially limits the scope of possible concerns and solutions presented in the media. The lack of activist groups and academic/scientific sources, as well as the little used public health frame is noteworthy given the global health risk of air pollution. On an individual level, results show that threat information was more prominently present compared to efficacy information, raising concerns about maladaptive responses to news coverage about air pollution.
Implications for research and/or practice: By neglecting to present air pollution as a global health risk, public interest and concern may be lowered and as a result support for regulatory processes to reduce air pollution and its impact on health may suffer. Newspaper coverage about air pollution provides little information for individual risk mitigation. There is opportunity to increase media attention to the global health risk of air pollution and paths to reduce risk.