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Commencement 2020: In tough times, "journalists are more needed than ever," says GBJ grad Linda Lew

We are delighted to share the texts of commencement addresses delivered by speakers during the 2020 graduation ceremonies. For a photo gallery commemorating the festivities, click here. To read GBJ co-director Rick Dunham's commencement speech, click here.

Linda Lew: "The journalism industry is facing many challenges but we can forge a path and help to change it for the better, even little by little."





JUNE 21, 2020

Hello, distinguished professors, students and guests. My name is Linda Lew. It is my pleasure to be speaking to you from Hong Kong today, where I work for the South China Morning Post as a China reporter. I moved to Hong Kong after graduating from the Global Business Journalism program in 2018.

When I started studying at Tsinghua, it was the first time I had lived in China as an adult, after immigrating to New Zealand with my family when I was 9. I also didn’t have a background in journalism before I embarked on my master's, so GBJ was the place where I was introduced to journalism and where I had a chance to get to know China again.

Now is both the best time and worst time to go into journalism. I have had a crazy journey in the past two years working full time in journalism in Hong Kong. When the Hong Kong protests started in June 2019, nobody expected it to develop into a large scale and sustained movement. Despite the safety training, it is not until you’re on the frontlines that you learn how to dodge tear gas canisters, water cannons, rubber bullets and molotov cocktails. Interviewing protesters and holding governments to account became increasingly difficult in a Hong Kong that is highly polarized.

Then in the beginning of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was sent to Wuhan in early January to cover what was then only known as an unknown pneumonia. Armed with only some tips from senior colleagues who had covered SARS, I landed in Wuhan with very little protective gear and no idea how contagious the new coronavirus was. I thankfully returned uninfected and grateful that I was able to cover the epidemic at the place where it all began. I am still covering the COVID-19 pandemic as its impact continues to reverberate around the world.

I do feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to cover all of these events, but I have to admit the work has taken its toll on me. On October 1, 2019, when mass protests erupted all over Hong Kong, I was sent to Kowloon, the part of Hong Kong to the north of Victoria Harbor, to cover a protest there. However, me and my colleagues were all recalled and asked to go home quickly after news came out that a police officer had hit a protester with a live bullet after the protester tried to grab the officer. None of my colleagues and I had bulletproof gear. On the ferry back, I saw a Hong Kong island with shiny steel and glass high-rises but wisps of black smoke hung over the city as fires burned. It was heartbreaking.

The reason why I say now may be the worst time to go into journalism is that COVID-19 has hit the global media industry hard. Even my own company has had to make cost-saving measures and staffers have to take unpaid leave. Many journalists across the world have been made redundant and it is not certain how long the industry will take to recover. You will be entering the toughest job market in a decade.

Public trust in traditional media has eroded and press freedom is facing assault in many parts of the world, including China. This is exactly why journalists are more needed than ever. Despite all the difficulties that come with the job, I have been able to share stories with readers all over the world and bear witness to history. It is the most rewarding thing I’ve done.

Nowadays, people have multiple careers in a lifetime. So do explore other options if journalism might not be the answer. Public relations, marketing or policy are all good fields where you’ll learn a lot. Continue to search for interesting stories and report, and then find a good home for your storytelling. The internet has given us many options to share our reports, podcasts or multimedia projects.

I was just talking to a friend who had also graduated from Tsinghua University, about how much we miss it. The days when I rode through the campus on my second-hand bike, and walking just five minutes to the closest cafeteria for the wide range of yummy and affordable food, were very fond memories.

The best place to cover China naturally should be on the mainland. Through my time at Tsinghua and living in Beijing, I have met people and gained knowledge that helped me a lot in my job.

To the class of 2020, the journalism industry is facing many challenges but we can forge a path and help to change it for the better, even little by little. I hope that armed with the skills and knowledge you learned from GBJ, you’ll excel in whichever industry you choose to enter. So good luck to you all and congratulations on your graduation.

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