China's next brain drain: investigative journalists

by Jack Liu
Oct 30, 2018 in Investigative Journalism

Investigative journalists in China are caught in a dilemma: although they are young and idealistic, low salaries and dangerous working conditions lead to burnout, according to a recent study.

The recently-published Ecosystem of Investigative Journalism in China, co-authored by Dr. Shen Fei from City University of Hong Kong and Dr. Zhang Zhian of Fudan University, spoke with 260 investigative journalists at various Chinese news organizations. Among them are Southern Weekly, Time Weekly, Oriental Outlook, Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily and Dahe Daily.

Male dominance

Investigative journalism in China is a man's world. According to the research, only 16 percent of investigative journalists are female. However, those few female investigative reporters have certain advantages. While a male source finds it uncomfortable to open up to another man, women can dissolve tension and break reserve,” said Liu Yiman, a journalist from Oriental Outlook.


When asked why they chose journalism as a career, the two most popular answers were “to expose social problems and serve justice” and “spread new ideas and inspire others.” On the bottom of that list are “high income" and “fame.” When asked what they strive for in their reporting, the top answers were “accuracy,” “objectivity” and “insight.”

Most of them, however, would prefer to work for a foreign news organization. The top five organizations to work for are: The New York Times, Southern Metropolis Daily, The Washington Post, CNN and BBC.

Show me the money

67 percent of investigative reporters earn a monthly income of 5,000 to 10,000 yuan (about $US 770-1,550), while 17 percent earn more than 10,000 yuan and 15 percent earn less than 5,000 yuan a month. More than half of the investigative journalists are based in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, some of the most expensive cities in China. Not surprisingly, “income” and “welfare” are the most unsatisfactory aspects of their jobs.

Take it or Leave it

Only 15 percent of these investigative journalists have worked for 11 to 15 years; more than half have worked for 6 to 10 years. The majority of reporters are 35 or under.

When asked whether they plan to continue to work as investigative journalists, 40 percent say no, 30 percent are unsure and only 13 percent say they plan stay in the profession for another 1 to 5 years.

Why are the careers of investigative journalists cut short in China?

“They face a high risk of danger or even death and their family members may be also affected. It is also hard for them to live decently with their limited income and work within the constrained media policy in China,” report co-author Zhang Zhian told the China Youth Daily.

Jack Liu Xiang is the summer intern at IJNet Chinese.