Academic journal article China Perspectives

Media and Civil Society in China: Community Building and Networking among Investigative Journalists and Beyond

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Media and Civil Society in China: Community Building and Networking among Investigative Journalists and Beyond

Article excerpt

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Media and civil society interactions: Interpretive communities and fields

In the West, the media are generally expected to play an important role in enhancing and strengthening democracy and civil society, although they are also often criticised for legitimising inequalities, excluding marginalized voices, and benefiting those with economic power.(2)A vibrant civil society and media that serve as watchdogs of public and corporate power are crucial to ensure a well-informed citizenry and genuine participatory democracy. Investigative journalists can in this respect play an important role as they act as watchdogs and push for accountability and justice, and because they also give voice to marginalized groups in society. They are furthermore more likely to network with other social groups and with civil society organisations engaged in the same struggles for a just and fair society. Investigative journalists are therefore often described as "custodians of conscience," although such labelling may give rise to impossibly high demands and verge on hero worship. (3)

Although civil society is weak and the media are tightly controlled in China, it has been possible to carve out some spaces of autonomy, albeit negotiated and conditional, during the reform period. Several studies have drawn attention to the "negotiated" and "contingent" nature of civil society and the creation of informal spaces and networks on-line and off-line. (4) In order to understand the different forms that civil society takes in China when formal organising is difficult and restricted, it is necessary to broaden our perspective to study the role and form of informal communities, networks, and meeting spaces on-line and off-line. In a recent article Callahan has also emphasised the need to study "how civil society emerges through the 'alternative civilities' of citizens' many 'China dreams.'"(5)The media and the Internet today constitute important platforms both for public debates on urgent issues and for civil society developments. (6) This calls for a closer study of the role of journalists in these developments and as promoters of different "China dreams." (7)

There is a growing body of literature on investigative journalism in China.(8) These studies have mainly focused on the possibilities for and institutional context of investigative journalism in different types of media, including issues of control and censorship, and journalists' work practices and relations to editors and propaganda departments. (9) Many studies also focus on the content of and struggles behind selected stories and scoops. (10) Some works contain more in-depth interviews with journalists on their values, work practices, and representative stories, (11) while a recent survey aims to map this distinctive group by age, gender, geographical prevalence, educational background, job satisfaction, and values, etc. (12) The number of Chinese investigative journalists is rather small, around 300 people according to the extensive survey made by Zhang and Shen, and it is a group with a high turnover rate and mobility. It is also relevant to point out the gendered nature of investigative journalism, with only 16 percent being women, which means we talk about a male dominated community. Although investigative reporting is very remote from the daily work of the majority of Chinese journalists, investigative journalists are often held up as role models and heroes in the journalistic community and in society in general, and thus have a greater impact than their small numbers would lead us to assume.

The aim of this article is to address more explicitly how a community of investigative journalists has been created, and these journalists' roles, struggles, and interactions with other journalists, social groups, and civil society organisations. In order to do so I borrow from two analytical concepts, namely Zelizer's idea of journalists as "interpretive communities" and Bourdieu's "field theory. …

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