Written by Jingrong Tong.
One day in May I casually glanced at WeChat moments and saw the news of the closure of the in-depth (investigative) reporting team at the Jinghua Times (Jinghua Shibao). That day, almost all the journalists I followed were talking about the news and considered this as more evidence of the end of investigative journalism in China. They were pessimistic about the future of investigative journalism and sighed that the golden time had gone and would not come once more.
If we take one quick look at what has happened to journalism in China, we will understand that they have every reason to be so pessimistic. Journalism in general- and investigative journalism in particular- is experiencing a very difficult time in China. I would say probably the most difficult time since the 1990s. This difficulty has become obvious since Xi Jinping came to power and is shown not only in the rapid drop in the number of influential investigative reports but also in the closures of investigative reporting teams across China. We have seldom read important investigative reports since 2012. A series of negative stories about investigative journalism have come out, including the shutting down of the in-depth reporting teams at the Dahe Daily in 2013 and in the China Youth Daily in 2014. A large number of journalists have left the profession to work in other areas such as public relations.
Accompanying the decline in news reporting is the severe economic crisis that Chinese news organisations have been facing over the past few years. The wave of closures of newspapers started in 2012 and is forcing news workers to think about the future of China’s traditional news media. Since then one after another commercial metropolitan newspapers have closed down, mainly due to economic deficits. Advertising and circulation revenues have been waning for quite a long time. The income reduction has become severe in recent years. Quite a number of newspapers cannot make ends meet. Those with huge debts just could not go on. Prominent among others are the News Evening (Xinwen Wanbao) and the New Everyday (Tiantian Xinbao) that were shut down in 2014. Although large news organisations have been trying different digital media experiments, very few of them are able to gain financial benefits from this kind of activities. Traditional news media’s difficulty in the media market has produced a number of consequences for journalism. Several of them are related to investigative journalism. Funding for this expensive kind of journalism has been cut. The concern over the relationship between news organisations and other social entities has further stopped them from supporting this type of journalism.
If the story of newspaper economics is similar to that in the West, tight political control exacerbates the situation in China. Over recent years an unfriendly political attitude has developed toward investigative journalism. This hostile attitude has made the situation worse. The media control has been tightened since 2013. A series of political crackdowns has forced news media to stop favouring investigative journalism. The top-down online purge has silenced the online sphere that was formerly quite boisterous. The speech of Xi Jinping about China’s propaganda in the 2013 Propaganda work conference has passed on a warning message for investigative journalism. The latest regulation about the practice of critical reporting clearly and officially limits the practice of investigative journalism. The decline of investigative journalism is an immediate consequence of this tightening.
The dual impact of the changes in political culture and in the market on news media is quite significant. News media have become more reliant on the government for financial support. An outstanding example of this is that the Shanghai municipal financial department promised to annually support the Shanghai Press Group RMB 50 million when the group was restructured under the administrative intervention in 2013. In the circumstances, whether news media will become part of the government system and the propagandist of the CCP again is a question to be answered.
So the question is: is investigative journalism dead in China? I feel it is still too early to come to that conclusion as there are some uncertainties and still need for investigative journalism. Uncertainty mainly comes from the great potential of the Internet and of the younger generations of journalists to make things different in the future. In addition, the professional values underlying investigative journalism are passed through generations and become another source of this uncertainty. Of the needs for investigative journalism, using investigative journalism as an effective political and market strategy is a strong one and always exists. Don’t forget this was exactly the main reason why the central government encouraged and news organisations supported the practice of investigative journalism in the 1990s when investigative journalism (re-)emerged in China. As long as investigative journalism is needed, it won’t die, despite the current difficulties.
Jingrong Tong is Lecturer in Media and Communication at the Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester. She is the author of “Investigative Journalism, Environmental Problems and Modernisation in China” (2015). Image Credit: CC by Henrik Berger Jørgensen/Flickr.