Written by Ran Duan and Bruno Takahashi.

Air pollution is a typical example of the environmental problems facing China, with most of the pollutants being a byproduct of industrial processes, burning coal, and automobile exhausts. In China, the health costs associated with air pollution are severe. Researchers have found that the so-called ‘ambient particulate matter pollution’ was the fourth-leading risk factor of deaths in China in 2010, behind dietary risks, high blood pressure, and smoking. The World Bank and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection concluded that 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely in China each year because of outdoor air pollution. Air pollution affects many mega-cities in China, among which the situation in Beijing attracts more attention from both the public and the media at an international level.

Media coverage significantly increased during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Images of athletes wearing masks during games permeated the news media around the world. Those images globalized a local environmental issue – Beijing’s air pollution. The problems of air pollution in China now still remain, but the representation of the problem by the news media, both in China and abroad might be changing.

Media coverage of Beijing’s air pollution

Media in China have traditionally been criticized as a propaganda machine, mostly representing the Chinese government in a positive light. On the other hand, U.S. media’s reporting of China has historically used a narrative embedded in a criticism of communism. Coverage of environmental issues has not been different, but the liberalization of the economy has allowed more flexibility and freedom within the Chinese media system, and such transformation of media landscapes allows faster, wider information distribution affecting the content of such coverage as well.

Media coverage of Beijing’s air pollution around the world intensified in 2008 as the city prepared to host the Summer Olympic Games. The U.S. media specially criticized Beijing’s air quality as “not healthy enough for a world-class race”. Air quality and associated health concerns became one of the most important reporting angles in American media. However, in 2011, media coverage both in the U.S. and China began to change. This change can be traced back to two particular events: first, the rise of social media in China, and second, the role of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as an information source. In 2011, Pan Shiyi, a Chinese celebrity and business magnate, noticed the data from the city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) were consistently better than the data from the U.S. Embassy’s monitoring apparatus. Pan pointed out on ‘Weibo,’ China’s most popular Twitter-like social media platform, the omission of PM 2.5 in the index by the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau. This sparked a political debate in social media over the publication of data of PM 10 or PM 2.5. Under such circumstances, in 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection started releasing additional air pollution data to the public, including PM 2.5. This led the state media to begin covering the issue more openly and critically. Beginning on January 12th, 2013, the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter account started reporting information on Beijing’s ‘crazy bad’ AQI at levels above 500 ppm, which is considered the top of the scale, according to standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Shortly after this event, Beijing’s air pollution reemerged as a hotly-debated international topic taking place in Chinese and U.S. mainstream media.

In order to better understand how these changes and events affected media reporting of a local environmental issue, we conducted an analysis of news articles published by the leading newspapers in China and the U.S. We found that media coverage between the newspapers show both similarities and differences. Chinese press, as represented by China Daily, favored the topic of strategies and solutions to deal with pollution the most. For example, there have been many discussions on China Daily about strategies or policies that could possibly be useful to reduce the city’s air pollution, such as the new environmental regulatory act, the emissions-control standard, environmental industries’ response, and environmental-friendly policies. While the American press, as represented by the New York Times (NYT), emphasized the link between pollution and larger Chinese political and economic issues. The topic of social impacts of pollution was more prominent in the NYT as well. Although both newspapers spent similar amounts of space covering the causes of pollution, the details of the exact causes (or the potential causes) were interpreted in different ways. China Daily blamed Western countries of transferring pollutants, as well as weather patterns, while NYT mentioned a wider range of potential causes, such as industrial waste and processes, and automobile emissions.Stories in China Daily used mostly a neutral tone, or reflected self-legitimizing confidence about pollution control. On the other hand, the NYT tended to generally frame the issue more critically, framing news stories as negative complaints toward the pollution.

We also analyzed source use patterns in the two newspapers. On one hand, there were similar percentages of usage of some sources, including Chinese NGOs, Chinese citizens, business sources, and international organization sources such as World Health Organization. On the other hand, China Daily relied significantly more on Chinese officials and Chinese social elite sources, while NYT relied significantly more on U.S. official, U.S. social elite, U.S. NGO and U.S. public sources. Although the differences are not surprising considering the different audiences each newspaper serves, the results suggest the presence of a more open two-way flow of international news (i.e., exchange of news sources) between the two countries, and show the changing media landscapes in the two countries. In 2008, during the Olympics, China Daily covered the issue sparsely, but it increased its coverage considerably in the following years. This presumably represents a more open media environment, as media control is less restricted in certain aspects, such as environmental reporting. U.S. media traditionally have presented China within a communist frame. But we found NYT included a mild degree of praise towards the Chinese government’s efforts in pollution control. That indicates a milder critical-tone that was relatively rare in previous U.S. media coverage of China.

This two-way direction of news flow between the two nations could indicate the increasing salience of environmental issues in China. Pollution reporting has changed from “event-driven journalism” to be a more long-term news agenda in China partly due to increased global attention to the issue. It is also undeniable that Chinese media coverage of the issue was relatively imbalanced, as the majority of the news frames were either neutral or self-legitimizing (i.e., praising government’s pollution-control efforts), and the topics on pollution cause were more concentrated on the short-term incidents (i.e., blaming weather or firework use as the pollution cause) rather than long-term underlying reason (i.e., coal burning reported by the NYT). China Daily has still long ways to go before the reporting of environmental issues fulfills the needs of an ever-increasing public attention to environmental issues. But the higher accessibility of sources (especially Chinese NGO sources), the increasing amount of coverage, and the mild self-criticism in Chinese state media, could possibly suggest changes in the reporting of environmental issues, which hopefully would lead to an increase in environmental awareness in Chinese society.

Ran Duan is a Ph.D. student in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University (MSU). Her research interests are media coverage of environmental, science and risk issues. 

Bruno Takahashi, Ph.D is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Department of Communication at Michigan State University (MSU). His research interests include media coverage of environmental issues, environmental behavior change, and environmental decision-making. Image Credit: CC by Dai Luo/Flickr.