Beijing’s blinding pollution

The press should not ignore dirty air in other cities

As resources become scarcer and cutbacks in foreign bureaus more common, international reporting is becoming geographically biased. This trend was evident in the heavy coverage of the thick smog in Beijing in recent months.

Pollution was literally off the charts in the Chinese capital this January, exceeding the upper bounds of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Air Quality Index in the densely populated city of 20 million. Since the Beijing Olympics in 2008 drew international attention to the city’s smog, the news media have covered the hazardous conditions thoroughly and highlighted the danger to public health. Unfortunately, few articles have pointed out that other cities face a similar problem, if not worse.

The EPA’s Air Quality Index works on a 500-point scale whereby a score above 150 is ‘unhealthy’ and anything above 300 is ‘hazardous,’ meaning, “Serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; serious risk of respiratory effects in general population.” On January 12, the US Embassy in Beijing recorded a measurement of 755.

The threat is not exclusive to Beijing, however. In 2012, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and India had more air pollution than China, according to the Environmental Performance Index developed by researchers at Yale University and Columbia University. And from 2003 to 2010, the cities with the highest average air pollution were Ahwaz, Iran, Ulanbataar, Mongolia, Sanadaj, Iran, Ludhiana, India and Quetta, Pakistan, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) database released in 2011. Yet these places have received nowhere near the amount of media attention that Beijing has.

A search for “Beijing and air pollution” on LexisNexis returned 762 articles in major world publications since 2011. The same search for “Iran and air pollution” (a countrywide, rather than city-specific, query) returned 457. India returned 433, and Pakistan 145. Bangladesh returned 58, and Nepal 22, and a closer look at these stories revealed that most of them were not even about air pollution in those countries.

Beijing itself is only one of the many places in China with hazardous air pollution levels, ranking ninth among the country’s 10 dirtiest cities, according to an article in the South China Morning Post earlier this month. In 2009, four cities had worse air than Beijing, according the WHO database. Yet the world hears little from the press about places like Xingtai, Baoding, Lanzhou, Xining, Urumqi, or Jinan.

The issue is a serious one. The WHO estimates that 2 million people die each year due to air pollution. Why is the media focusing on Beijing? Is it because it is the capital of the to-be strongest economy in the world? What about the poorer cities in China and countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, or cities like Ahwaz in Iran and Ludhiana in India? Are the lives of human beings in these places less important than the ones in Beijing? Surely, no journalist thinks that is the case, but faced with a shortfall in resources for international reporting, it seems that the global media are prioritizing regions viewed as having greater geo-political importance.

The intense coverage of Beijing has been a boon for its 20 million residents, whom the Chinese government has long “kept in the dark” about the dangers of air pollution, according to The New York Times. When the US Embassy began measuring air quality in the city before the 2008 Olympics, the Communist Party was not happy about the amount of attention the records drew. In July 2009, an official in the Foreign Ministry, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the embassy’s @Beijingair Twitter feed, according to a State Department cable published by Wikileaks.

The sustained international attention proved too much, however. Yielding to a growing outcry in the country (particularly among dissident bloggers), the Chinese government allowed the state-controlled media to begin aggressively covering the pollution in January, and soon after, it enacted emergency measures in an effort to deal with the problem.

Beijing has a long way to go before its residents can breathe easy, but in the meantime, other cities and countries need the same type of global support. Reporting on pollution levels in countries like Nepal, which lacks adequate measurement capabilities of its own, is especially important. The people in these places need to know what dangers lurk in the air around them, and if the media doesn’t bring attention to their plight, they will continue to suffer.

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Shiwani Neupane is an author and journalist from Kathmandu, Nepal. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in journalism at Columbia University. Tags: , , , ,