An investigative journalist works in a village in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Photo: VCG
As tens of thousands of Chinese parents demand answers over a recent faulty vaccine scandal, many are calling for the return of domestic investigative reporters.
The number of investigative journalists has been slashed since 2010, when a famous investigative journalist wrote a major story about a vaccine scandal in Shanxi Province that aroused wide attention from government and society.
According to an industry report on investigative journalists conducted by media professor Zhang Zhian in 2017, head of the School of Communication and Design of Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, there were only 175 registered investigative journalists in China in 2017, which is about half of the 334 investigative journalists six years ago.
Many have shifted into the cash-rich internet industry. Some have devoted themselves to startups or the philanthropic realm. Only a few persisted in journalism.
The data about the plunge in the number of investigative journalists was termed by netizens as one of "the most shocking and frightening statistics of 2017" on China's Quora equivalent zhihu.com.
Of the country's 1.3 billion people, "there are only a few hundred investigative journalists in the country even using the most loosely defined standard," Zhang Zhian wrote in the report.
The report shows that the number of investigative journalists working for traditional media fell by as much as 58 percent compared to the number in 2011, which means the investigative journalism industry is facing a serious brain drain.
Zhang surveyed the 175 reporters. Of the 163 who responded, only 19.6 percent of them said they would stick to investigative news coverage after five years, down from 24 percent six years ago. Some 43.6 percent made it clear that they would not be continuing investigative reporting and would move to other ventures in five years.
"Investigative reporting in China is entering its coldest time," Wang Keqin wrote on his Weibo account in 2013.
This doyen of Chinese investigative journalism, who has left the field, came into the limelight again recently because of his front-page piece published in 2010 on how improperly stored vaccines in Shanxi Province led to the death of children.
Wang has witnessed an exodus of investigative journalists in China, either actively or passively, and a dearth of influential investigative reporting over the past few years.
He notes that investigative pieces are compressed, and many investigative editorial teams have been disbanded.
Bao Yueyang, chief editor of the China Economic Times who signed off on Wang's investigative report in 2010, was removed from his post two months after its release. In July the following year, the newspaper decided to dissolve its investigative reporting team.
"What the public truly misses this time is not investigative journalists, but rather the supervisory role of the media," Jian Guangzhou, a former Chinese investigative journalist who exposed a food safety crisis in China's dairy industry, wrote in a social media account.
Liu Xiangnan, a senior investigative journalist on the front lines for 18 years, started his career in 2001, the period when media outlets competed to attract advertisers and readers by offering hard-hitting investigative stories.
Many social problems that appeared along with rapid economic development were good soil for in-depth reporting. However, challenged by the rise of new media since 2010, the stagnation of the newspaper publishing industry readership brought about the departure of advertisers.
A number of market-oriented metropolitan newspapers cut their in-depth reporting department, which requires large budgets to support months-long investigations.
The income of individual investigative journalists has been hit hard. "During the golden era, the average salary for an investigative journalist was around 10,000 yuan ($1,500). But almost a decade later, it's hard to imagine we're still struggling on this same salary, sometimes even below the line," Liu told the Global Times.
Economic woes are undoubtedly one of the biggest causes of the exodus of investigative journalists, but they are far from the only one.
The constant development of digital media and growing social media penetration also make the future look bleak for investigative journalism in China.
People prefer articles that are emotionally appealing over well-researched pieces supported by solid evidence and rich details. This limits the development of high-quality journalism.
The social media blogger Sanbiao lashed out at the shortage of public support and institutional willpower to support in-depth hard news in China. He asked how to "revitalize the in-depth investigative news story when audiences only care about sensational headlines in countless social media accounts."
He said that the public yearns for investigative journalists only when serious scandals are exposed.
"If very few people read news for the facts," he asked, "what makes reporters persist in producing facts?"
Recently, news site Jiemian awarded 100,000 yuan to several in-depth investigative reporters, and many other journalists and editors received awards of 50,000, 20,000 and 10,000 yuan.
The award sparked a heated debate in the industry. Many viewed the award as a benchmark event in the industry for encouraging qualified practitioners and restoring their confidence.
Many applauded for the outlet's effort to retain experienced investigative journalists.
Liu Xiangnan, as a reporter who won the prize of 100,000 yuan, thanked the news site for the incentive.
"The size of the prize itself does not matter. What really matters is that it stirs up the 'dead pool' of in-depth journalism that has long been dormant, showing respect for journalists and the stories they have worked so hard on," Liu wrote on WeChat.
Sense of frustration
One senior investigative journalist, who did not want to be named, told the Global Times that he began to sense a rise in media regulation starting in 2013. Since then, some veteran journalists have left the industry.
Jian Guangzhou was one of China's most highly regarded reporters. He came to fame for his report that Chinese infants were suspected of falling ill with kidney stones because of the milk powder from leading brand Sanlu.
His reports led to one of China's biggest food security scandals over the past decade.
Because of the report, Jian was lauded as the "conscience of China" in 2008, and the Oriental Morning Post, the news outlet he worked for, became one of the most respected media in China, largely based on its in-depth investigative reports.
However Jian announced his resignation in 2012, which was heartbreaking for many peers.
He said that the decision was painful, but he had to consider his future livelihood.
"China is not short of conscientious journalists, but it is short of the environment in which they can be protected and lead a decent life," one Weibo user commented upon Jian's departure.
At the time, Jian said he hoped that he could set up an NGO to sponsor investigative journalists. However, Jian was unable to do it.
The media reported that around the time of his resignation, the editors in his publication were withholding stories that tracked a corruption case.
"There is a strong sense of frustration if your hard work on an investigation can't be published. It is an inevitable factor that makes a lot of investigative news workers leave," Jian told the Global Times.
In 2013, Yang Qiongwen, while working as a reporter for the Nandao Evening News, was forced by local officials to leave his post after exposing a sexual assault case involving underage girls and their school principal in Hainan Province.
Even in the face of many challenges, investigative reporters can never be completely absent and gone, as far as Liu Xiangnan is concerned. "No matter how difficult the conditions are, there will be room for this profession for sure."
He suggests that there are still many like him persisting in their efforts to hold the wrongdoers accountable.
"But the number might slump, which means that the number of people staying with investigative journalism might be shrinking year by year," he said.
Jian Guangzhou believes that a good way to retain investigative journalists in the future is to promote paid news and to call for public support for professional investigative reporting.
"In this way, independent investigative journalism is no longer restricted and influenced by advertisers, at least," he said.