A month ago, I attended a talk organized by the journalism school of a top university in Nanjing, a city in eastern China, that aimed to encourage freshmen enrolled in humanities programs to major in journalism. Yet many of the students present in the auditorium were reluctant to choose the subject at a time when mainstream professional journalism is seemingly in decline. Many of their frustrations were alien to me, especially when I thought back to the halcyon days as a journalism student 20 years ago.
Nowadays, Chinese students worry that journalism is no longer financially lucrative. Two decades ago, I barely considered this question. In China, journalists and scholars often refer to the period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s as a golden age: At that time, many of China’s media organizations moved, at least partially, into private hands; there was a pervasive atmosphere of idealism; and young journalists aspired to enforce professional ethics such as truth-seeking and objectivity.
The best investigative journalists at that time had high incomes to match their lofty ideals. In a 2013 interview with Nan Xianghong, a former investigative journalist at the influential magazine Southern Weekly, Nan recalled that she earned a monthly wage of around 18,000 yuan (then $2,700) in 2001 when the average annual wage in urban China, according to official statistics, was less than 11,000 yuan.
However, those days are long gone. A 2016 national survey of Chinese journalists revealed that 80 percent earned below 10,000 yuan a month, which is less than twice the average monthly wage in Chinese cities — a paltry sum for the country’s university-educated, highly skilled writers.
Aside from income, China’s journalists-to-be also worry about the diminishing social value of their future profession. Another student at the talk lambasted what she perceived as the lack of authenticity present in many Chinese media outlets and the dearth of public willpower to restore it. What was the point, she asked, of spending vast amounts of time on an important investigative news story when people care more about sensational headlines on one of the country’s countless WeMedia accounts, online content creators who operate outside the traditional media framework? “People do not read news for the facts,” she claimed, “so why bother publishing facts at all?”
In the so-called post-truth era, China’s traditional media outlets are not alone in bemoaning a lack of journalistic rigor. Here as elsewhere, audiences often gravitate toward articles that appeal to them emotionally rather than well-researched, nuanced pieces of arguably greater importance. This trend is giving young journalism students an identity crisis even before they start their careers. It also poses a big challenge for journalism educators like myself: How should we teach future journalists? How do we restore the value of good reporting in contemporary China and help students reinvigorate the industry?
Teaching undergraduate journalism courses has made me realize that few Chinese students connect journalism to public life. In a seminar last year, a student asked me what my views are on the so-called decline of professional journalism. I responded with a question of my own: Why do you think professional journalism should not be allowed to decline? She answered: “Because we need to know what is happening in our surroundings. We need information.”
“Yes,” I replied. “The provision of information is important. But these days, every single internet user and WeMedia outlet is telling you what is happening in the world. So why do we still need professional journalists?”
The class briefly fell silent, until another young woman shyly answered that professional journalists are valuable because they can provide more accurate and objective information than WeMedia. So I pushed the class even further: “If that’s the case, why do we need accurate, objective information? Is it just because inaccurate and biased reporting contravenes good journalistic ethics?”
Silence again. Eventually, a student raised his hand and murmured: “Because inaccurate information and groundless allegations may mislead the audience, who may then use that information as the basis for making wrong decisions and forming biased opinions on public affairs. And this, in turn, may damage the public good.”
Exactly, I said. This student was one of very few I had met who saw the role of journalism in public life. I went on to explain to the class that accurately reporting the facts bears little relation to how much your article amuses readers. Additionally, the effort involved in accurate reporting rarely translates into greater revenue, although there are exceptions to this rule. Yet digging into the hard facts and presenting them in your work is a practice that lies at the heart of why journalism is important: It strengthens our engagement in public life. Chinese journalism students — not to mention certain professional journalists — have long overlooked this last point.
My students in that seminar did at least understand why WeMedia can’t compete with traditional news outlets that demand greater journalistic rigor and integrity. WeMedia exist to make profits, and so they delight in reporting breaking news as quickly and in the most sensational terms as possible, knowing that each click brings a steady trickle of advertising revenue. Their writers are rarely trained journalists.
But this discrepancy between traditional news outlets and WeMedia does not go far enough. As journalism teachers, we need to make students understand the value of the fact that, in China, only licensed media organizations give journalists the right to report the news, because they’re also the only organizations with the power to hold their journalists accountable for doing so accurately. Though this concurrence of rights and accountabilities is, in practice, highly contingent upon China’s prevailing media policies, it still distinguishes news from the country’s mainstream media from the kind of information peddled by WeMedia.
But the fact that WeMedia routinely publish inaccurate reports is not solely due to the questionable ethics of the people who operate them. In China, media organizations must first obtain a license from the government before they can send journalists out into the field. WeMedia operators do not have these licenses and therefore cannot easily report news, especially on social and political affairs. However, many WeMedia operators deliberately claim that they are not journalists and so do not need to comply with journalistic ethics.
As long as the current crop of WeMedia outlets continue to occupy this legal gray area in which they can publish written pieces without adhering to the country’s media regulations, they will never rival professional journalism as purveyors of accurate, objective information. China’s media organizations must therefore strive to improve the quality of the information they provide, bolster their credibility as reliable news outlets, and convince the public that the work they do is necessary and important.
Disappointingly, however, the Chinese journalism community, for both political and economic reasons, is largely indifferent toward protecting its abovementioned rights and obligations. For example, a few weeks ago, a rumor spread across the Chinese internet claiming that a chemical plant in Nanjing had exploded and was leaking poisonous gas. The local government instantly responded that the malodorous air in the vicinity was caused by a gas leak, but it was actually tear gas used by a nearby military barracks. The state’s response, however, did little to prevent rumors of a gas explosion from spreading further.
It was the kind of moment when local professional journalists should have descended on the scene and clarified the situation once and for all. However, not a single media organization in Nanjing bothered to send a journalist to the factory. Amazingly, the only “reporters” there were a group of our own students who were taking part in a fact-checking assignment in the area.
Media organizations must stop assuming that credibility is something that’s bestowed upon them. Credibility is earned through the relentless grind of everyday reporting. When professional journalists stop bothering to pursue stories to their conclusions and reject fact-checking as a core professional skill, they tarnish the reputation of the industry as a whole and strengthen the hand of less scrupulous organizations.
Next semester, a new cohort of students will enroll in my class. I will tell them that the value of journalism is not fading, even though traditional media seems to be deteriorating. Decline also foreshadows revival, and in my journalism class, I’ll do my utmost to prepare them for its future renaissance.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: E+/VCG)