Becoming a journalist: One graduate’s experience in China

Journalist, China

Owen Churchill, BA Chinese and Music, has spent the last few years splitting his time between studying for his Masters at Fudan University in Shanghai and working for media outlet Sixth Tone, covering a wide array of stories, from murder cases to the objectification of women athletes in Asian sports coverage.

His efforts have not gone unrewarded. He was recently named ‘Journalist of the Year‘ by the International China Journalists Association.

SOAS Blogs met with Owen to gain some insights…

You’ve spent a few years now working as a journalist in China – what can you tell us about working in the industry there?

Working in almost any industry in China today is incredibly exciting, because so much is changing. It’s especially true for journalism, which continues to find its place in a country where there are so many important stories to tell everyday, and a system that doesn’t always allow people to tell them. It’s looking increasingly bleak in terms of press freedoms, but there are still plenty of amazing journalists there, both local reporters and foreign correspondents, doing incredible work.

I was lucky enough to be involved in setting up a new English language outlet that offered new perspectives on reporting in China, focusing in on often very personal stories as a way to talk about big issues. It meant everyone was encouraged to get out of the newsroom as much as possible, the best training as a journalist I could have hoped for.

Government officials can be stubbornly tight-lipped, PR wields massive power, and local press is always at the mercy of the censors to some degree. So it’s definitely testing, but when you think that you are being paid to listen to any number of interesting stories every day and put them to paper, it’s also an incredible privilege.

‘Journalist of the Year’ Owen Churchill

You were recently named ‘Journalist of the Year’ – what does that recognition mean to you?

It was a massive surprise, and something I would never have anticipated happening a couple of years ago when I started. It’s always hard to know whether what you write is actually making any kind of impact, and that’s particularly true in the China watcher circle, which sometimes feels a bit like a self-serving echo chamber. So it means a huge deal to me​ to know that my work has resonated with some people, especially since I’m still finding my feet. Also very humbling to be mentioned alongside reporters who I’ve looked up to and learned a lot from.

You don’t shy away from controversial topics. Indeed one of the articles cited by the Awards Committee was part of a series examining erotic culture in modern China – do you choose the stories or do they choose you?

I think there’s a tendency with covering China to polarise, to portray every person as either part of the oppressed or part of the oppressive system itself. It isn’t always wrong, but it definitely runs the risk of simplifying reality. So I’ve never sought controversial subjects for the sake of it. The series on erotic culture was probably a good example: I spoke to people producing pornography, but they weren’t necessarily all opposed to China’s laws that prohibit pornography.

“It meant everyone was encouraged to get out of the newsroom as much as possible, the best training as a journalist I could have hoped for.”

You studied Chinese and Music at SOAS – how did the course help you in your career?

In terms of Chinese, SOAS will always have the best teaching. It put me in a great position coming to China, and meant I could use the language pretty comfortably at work. But I think the real strength of studying the language at SOAS is how it is taught in the context of contemporary Chinese studies, whether it’s courses in literature and film, or just through the insights that lecturers share in passing with students. That really gives you a solid understanding of what’s at play in Chinese society today. Though obviously once you get to China you’ll invariably realise you’ll never quite know enough.

What stories are you working on at present?

I’m working on a couple things right now, including a piece for a China-focused supplement in Nature magazine, and another on a prominent Chinese photojournalist who I’m hoping to meet on an upcoming trip to the States, as well as some freelance translation on the side.

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