Notes on Buddhist Journalism—8-Five elements of Western news paradigm clash with goals of Buddhist journalism
Posted on July 18th, 2011

By Shelton A. Gunaratne © 2011 Professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead

 Let me begin by recapitulating the traits of mainstream/ Western journalism (WJ) in relation to the goals of Buddhist-oriented Journalism (BJ).  Traits refer to the characteristics evident in the day-to-day practice of journalism, warts and all. Goals refer to the ideals of journalism that practitioners should strive to reach. Thus, by definition, there will always be a gap between traits and goals. The purpose of BJ is to narrow down this gap.

We can analyze WJ in terms of the five elements of its news paradigm: the event, the news-value factors, the news interview, the inverted pyramid structure, and journalistic objectivity.

Supremacy of the event: WJ thrives on “newsworthy” events that fit the 24-hour news cycle.  Therefore, WJ is primarily event-oriented journalism: No events, no WJ.  In summary:

  1. 1.      Both WJ and BJ recognize that news is anicca (impermanent) because the elements of a “newsworthy” event change every moment. The two approaches differ to the extent that the news paradigm treats the event as a fixed entity whereas BJ sees it as a continuing process.

Analysis and interpretation of ongoing developments at the universal, global, national and local levels from the Buddhist perspective will be the major task of the BJ practitioner. Such process reporting requires retraining and a thorough understanding of the three dimensions””‚sila (ethical conduct), samadhi (mental development) and paƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’-¾ (wisdom)””‚embedded in the Noble Eightfold Path. BJ practitioners can dwell on any topic based on the sole criterion of the extent, intuitively determined, to which it could reduce individual and social suffering (dukkha).

Supreme [News] Value: WJ determines the newsworthiness of an event on the basis of a cluster of eight factors representing the Supreme Value, a secularized avatar of the Supreme Being in Judeo-Christian West. WJ practitioners reify this cluster although it runs counter to Oriental cosmology. In summary:

  1. 2.      BJ goals and WJ news values/traits do not see eye to eye in relation to three factors””‚prominence, proximity and the unusual; are ambiguous in relation to three other factors””‚timeliness, impact and conflict; and are potentially compatible with the last two factors””‚currency (e.g., sudden emergence of a long simmering situation) and necessity (e.g., a situation that a journalist feels compelled to reveal.

A BJ practitioner may decide that a conflict (a clash of ideas, actions, etc.) between two or more groups could be resolved amicably through mutual negotiation (as in the anti-conversion issue in Sri Lanka). Then, the practitioner himself or herself might become instrumental in organizing the ensuing discussions and reporting the proceedings accurately within the parameters of the eightfold path. However, if the conflict is much deeper and violent, the practitioner should aim at helping the antagonists “overcome their personal sufferings and helping society heal the wounds caused by injustice, hatred, ostracism, and physical violence”  (Doug McGill). The measuring stick for every word and story the BJ practitioner produces would be: Does it help overcome individual and social suffering?

The [News] Interview is the third element of the mainstream news paradigm. Although virtually unknown in the 1860s, the journalistic interview became common among American reporters during the next two decades. By World War I, the interview had turned into a mainstay of American journalism. Experienced journalists have used silence as a manipulative technique to extract information from respondents during long interviews.

  1. 3.      BJ does not encourage interviews that tend to build up an individual’s ego that vitiates the reality that a mutually interdependent namarupa has no self. BJ prefers interviews that elicit group thinking aimed at reducing both social and individual suffering. It doesn’t approve the manipulation of creative interviewing to sensationalize news features.

The Inverted Pyramid is the fourth component of the Western news paradigm. During the American Civil War journalists were forced to file the essential facts first because of the unreliability of the telegraph facilities.  This structure became formalized as the formula for straight news reporting for more than a century until surveys revealed that many readers were unhappy with the emasculation of stories to fit the formula (i.e., first, the summary lead highlighting the news point; second, the supporting facts in order of their news value; and third, details documenting each of the supporting facts in the same order).

  1. 4.      Buddhist goals emphasize process reporting to explain the mutual interaction of multiple factors. By revealing the essence of the story first, the inverted pyramid structure encourages people to consume news very superficially thereby nullifying the purpose of process reporting.

Journalistic Objectivity constitutes the core and final element of the Western news paradigm. The American press dropped its partisan journalism and widely embraced objectivity as its professional norm in the 1920s. Increasing circulation and advertising revenue enabled the press to become politically independent. More recently, however, the emergence of global media conglomerates and the heavy dependence of news media on advertising have raised doubts about the putative objectivity of Western journalism.

  1. 5.      Because Buddhist epistemology asserts that the knower (observer) and the known (observed) are interdependent, “this causal interplay renders it impossible to claim or prove an ultimate truth “¦ Data gathering and interpretation are not value free, but freighted with emotional predispositions and cognitive preconceptions” (Macy, 1991).

Claiming that beliefs based on authority and reason may turn out to be true or false, Buddha said that one should accept a proposition as true only when one has “personal knowledge” of it, taking into account the views of the wise. That’s the advice that the BJ practitioners must follow.

Thus, we see that on each of the five parts of the Western news paradigm, BJ stands as its complement or contradiction””‚the typical yin-yang relationship of every phenomenon. This leads us to the conclusion that the current predominance of WJ requires harmony and balance through the active intervention of BJ.

The Daoic yinyang principle of relative polarities signifies diversity within unity. But it is inappropriate to use West-centric criteria to excoriate their obverse. In a research paper on reporting Buddhism in Taiwan, Chiung Hwang Chen (2009) argues that the symbiotic relationship between the media and Buddhism in recent decades has seriously undercut journalistic professionalism. But because Chen defines professionalism in terms of the mainstream news paradigm, one can easily dismiss his conclusion. This is a warning for researchers not to use Western models to judge social issues in Oriental societies.


I hope that that the cluster of notes I have presented so far on the need for BJ will inspire engaged Buddhists worldwide to establish a Buddhist mass media bureau to disseminate news and views presented from a Buddhist/ Oriental perspective. My Google search for a Buddhist daily revealed two such newspapers: the Mahanayak, a Marathi daily published in Aurangabad for the Dalit, Bahujan and Buddhist communities; and the Advayavada Buddhism Daily, an online paper from Amsterdam. Although it claims to be daily, the latest issue I could locate was for 20 Jan. 2011.  But because of their narrow sectarian interests, both fail my broader definition of BJ.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

 [Advayavada is a secular form of Buddhism, which postulates progress (pratipada) as the fourth sign or mark of being and considers the Middle Way (madhyama-pratipad,

ashtangika-marga) as a reflexion, at the human level and in human terms, of this fundamental property of overall existence. The purpose of Advayavada Buddhism is “to become a true part of the whole.”]

Other publications on Buddhism on the “ƒ”¹…”Net include Buddhist Chanel, Buddhist Door, Engaged Dharma, Daily Zen, Gentle Voice, Mandala, Pragmatic Buddhist, Shambhala Sun, Tricycle, Urthona, and Zen Unbound 

 Questions to readers
I have reproduced the first four paragraphs of a front-page story headlined “Records detail horrific attack” from The Forum (16 July 2011). On a rating scale of 0 through 10, what rating would you give this story from the BJ perspective?

(Lo) 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (Hi)

MOORHEAD “”…” She was held against her will for 24 hours, during which she was, on multiple occasions, beaten, stabbed and raped and soaked in lighter fluid by a man who threatened to kill her by lighting her on fire and then cutting her into pieces.

The woman lost so much blood that she was in and out of consciousness. When she was able to stay awake, her attacker forced her to clean up her own blood from the floor.

That’s the horrific ordeal the 46-year-old victim in an alleged attack in a trailer home in north Moorhead described to police after escaping from Michael Anthony Powell’s trailer here on July 2.

Details of the allegations are outlined in a complaint filed last week in Clay County District Court for second-degree assault, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, and false imprisonment and in search warrant documents filed this week.

The following is a sample of news published in the Apostolic Tribune (July 2011), a monthly Catholic newspaper. On a rating scale of 0 through 10, what rating would you give this story from the BJ perspective?

           (Lo) 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (Hi)

The Most Holy Apostolic Father, His Holiness Rohan Lalith Aponso is the “Glorious Gift” given to this world by God. He was Chosen by Lord Jesus Christ. He was not chosen to serve God by a person who is living in this world or by a group of persons who are living in this world. He was Chosen to serve God, by Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Therefore, His Holiness the Apostolic Father received the “Most Sacred Apostleship” from the Sacred Arms of Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The Most Sacred Apostleship is granted only by Lord Jesus Christ Himself, to the person whom he has chosen.

 Absolutely, when we see how the Holy Apostolic Father destroys the boundaries which people have erected and how he renders his services to the world, the question that arises in our mind is Has Lord Jesus Christ, truly, disguised himself and come to this world, once again?

 At the conclusion of the Apostolic Father’s General Audience which was held in the evening of 9th April 2011, the Holy Apostolic Father went to the midst of the people who gathered around him and greeted them and showed a fatherly affection to them by mingling with them. He also granted his Apostolic Blessing to them.

2 Responses to “Notes on Buddhist Journalism—8-Five elements of Western news paradigm clash with goals of Buddhist journalism”

  1. Nanda Says:

    I will give 7 to “Records detail horrific attack” and absolute ZERO for Rohan story.

  2. gunarat Says:

    Your rating of The Forum story would be OK in terms of the mainstream news paradigm. BJ would give it very low priority because it merely adds to social suffering. Instead, a BJ practitioner would try to make a positive contribution to reduce suffering by periodical analyses of crime statistics and interpreting the the co-arising factors behind the trends from the Buddhist perspective. BJ doesn’t emphasize events, BJ believes that time is infinite; therefore, it focusses on process reporting.

    Your rating of the Apostolic Tribune story is absolutely on the mark. The story adulates a namarupa thereby building up his ego (the non-existent self), which will enhance individual suffering. Written in holy jargon, its writing style is unacceptable to mainstream press too.

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