New book calls on journalists to practice mindful journalism—a genre befitting Digital Era
Posted on November 11th, 2014

By Shelton Gunaratne, professor of communication emeritus

 This article is excerpted from the introductory chapter of the book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital era: A Buddhist Approach” to be published in March 2015 by Routledge in London.
Edited by Shelton Gunaratne  (Minnesota State University Moorhead), Mark Pearson (Griffith University), and Sugath Senarath (Sri Palee campus, Colombo University), the book also contains guest chapters by Asanga Tilakaratne (Colombo University), and Kalinga Seneviratne (Chulalongkorn University).

We thought that in today’s informatized world, engendered by digitization and global mediatization, a need exists for a different breed of journalists who could bring about amity and sanity in the world community.  Their task would be to foster a new genre of journalism, which we identify as mindful journalism, devoid of the profit motive that makes and shapes news a commodity than a social good—a distinction that Juan Somavia (1976) and some other scholars made during the height of the call for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO).

Like everything else in the world, we conceptualized mindful journalism as a dynamic process conditioned, but not determined, by a combination of causal laws that operate in nature, whether they be physical laws (utti-niyama), biological laws (bīja-niyama) or psychological laws (citta-niyama).

Buddhist background

We derived the elements of mindful journalism by delving into Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the crux of Buddhist phenomenology found in the teachings and sermons of the Buddha (Sutta Pitaka), the rules and regulations that governed monastic life (Vinaya Pitaka) for the past 25 centuries, and the ancient (3rd century BCE and later) Abidhamma Pitaka commentaries on the suttas. These three together are called the   Tripitaka.

Because the Four Noble Truths have nothing to do with divine origin or inspiration and are only a set of verifiable statements discovered by an enlightened human being to alleviate human suffering/dissatisfaction, they are worthy of phenomenological or empirical testing by journalists living in a world of global mediatization. Although not all journalists could aspire to be Buddha, a few could become enlightened journalistic kalyana-mitta (admirable friend)—a term that Buddhist scholar Asanga Tilakaratne suggested to supersede my original euphemism journalistic arhant” –who could help others alleviate the suffering that invariably accompanies the continuous process of becoming (bhava) from birth (jati) to old age and death (jaramarana). However, successful personal experience with a course of action is essential before one could venture to recommend that course to others. Ethical conduct would not permit an alcoholic journalist to disseminate stories preaching the ills of alcoholism.

Although eventually Buddhism broke down into two main schools—Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle), which took root in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; and Mahayana (Great Vehicle), which spread into East Asia—the foundational basis of these two schools and their outgrowths remain the same. However, Tilakaratne (2012) asserts that Theravada was the form of Buddhism that spread to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia; and that Hinayana was the derogatory name that Mahayanists gave to the extinct Sautrantika and Vaibhashika sects in India.

Four Noble Truths

All schools of Buddhism are based on the core belief in the Four Noble Truths that Siddhartha Gautama discovered to attain Buddhahood: that cyclic existence (samsara) is suffering (dukkha); that desire (tanha), clinging (upadana) and related fetters—identity with a self/soul; doubt, especially about the Dhamma; attachment to rites and rituals; sensual desire; ill-will; lust for rebirth; conceit; and restlessness—all resulting from ignorance (avijja) are the causes (samudaya) of suffering; that a path (magga) exists for the cessation (nirodha) of suffering; and that path is the Noble Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Path or magga.

Therefore, the Four Noble Truths constitute a phenomenology that Buddha discovered through his personal experience in the context of the Buddhist theory of truth. These truths have nothing to do with philosophy as known in the Western world. Anyone can phenomenologically verify these four assertions through personal experience. In Kalama Sutta, Buddha appears to say that people should decide on what is true through subjecting it to personal experience and not because of hearsay or authority.[i] This interpretation, however, gives only a partial rendition of the Buddhist theory of truth.

Inasmuch as truth–seeking is a major concern of modern journalism, it is important for journalists to understand the Buddhist meaning of truth

Buddhist theory of truth

Here, we will very briefly refer to the Jayatilleke (1974: pp. 40-52) definition of truth in Buddhism. He says that truth has the following characteristics:

  • Pragmatism: Dhamma, the truth, is pragmatic although it does not subscribe to a pragmatic theory of truth” (p. 46).
  • Correspondence and coherence: A theory or statement is true when it is in accordance with fact” (p. 43), and has consistency or the lack of contradiction” (p. 44).
  • Verifiability: It is the duty of each Buddhist to try and verify their truth in practice” (p. 47).
  • Middle Path: The truth lies in the mean between two extreme views” p. 47).
  • Partial truths: Aspects of truth [in religious and philosophical theories] based on the misdescribed experiences of the individuals who propounded them” (p. 48) belong to this category. Trying to generalize from a part to the whole is another example.
  • The catuskoti: This refers to Buddhism’s two-value logic of four alternatives, only one of which can be true (p. 49).
  • Conventional and absolute truth: The absolute truth (paramattha) is that in the absence of a self  I” do not exist as an independent individual because I am” merely a composite of ever-changing Five Aggregates. This is because language employs static concepts to describe dynamic processes” (p. 51). Therefore, it becomes necessary to use terms related to conventional truth (sammutti) like I” and me” to skip this problem.

Pure Buddhism, as summarized in the Four Noble Truths is neither a philosophy requiring belief in the authority of Buddha nor a religion that treats Buddha as God. The Four Noble Truths summed up in the three marks of existence (ti-lakkhana)—dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness), anatta (asoulity/ no self) and anicca (inconstancy/ impermanence)—is the absolute truth or paramatta. The empirical approach of Western science, on the other hand, is limited to investigating only conventional truth (sammutti) because it cannot go beyond material forms. Buddhism explores the mind, and science explores matter.

 Truth and journalism

We thought that alleviation of suffering, which means both physical and mental distress, was a concern of the majority of humanity irrespective of religion, race or any other imaginary or manifest division. The prescription to alleviate suffering, the magga, contains methods a person could practice and promote that all religions—Abrahamic or not—could endorse even though the Buddhist path has very different assumptions, worldview and vision.

Magga and the Decalogue

On the surface, the ethical conduct dimension of the magga resembles part of the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue sans reference to God and idolatry. In his Queensland lecture that introduced the concept of Buddhist journalism, the mother of mindful journalism, Gunaratne (2007) pointed out that although the concepts related to ethical conduct looked very similar, the values they engendered were wide apart like the yin and the yang.

Judeo-Christian values are Occidental or Western values, which go well beyond the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) in the Torah and the Bible. The Jews believe that the Decalogue provides the ideological background for the remainder of the 613 commandments (mitzvoth) that God gave to Moses. Jewish tradition holds that every human being is obligated to observe the seven Noachide commandments (i.e., the prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual immorality, stealing, eating from a living animal, and the injunction to establish a legal system), considered to be a subset of the Decalogue (Putnam, 2005). Christian values are derived from the Bible (Ten Commandments) and the traditions of the institutional church. Additionally, Christians employ three other sources: practical reason, experience (including emotions and desires), and human learning (in both science and humanities) (Outka, 2005). Note that the moral values specified in the Decalogue—respect for parents; refraining from murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and killing of sentient beings—appear in the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism, as well as in Hinduism, Jainism, and most other religions. However, with the separation of church and state and the onset of colonialism and industrialization, the Judeo-Christian values became increasingly secularized, with a heavy emphasis on individualism (self) reflected in Weber’s concept of Protestant ethics. Individualism takes a mutual-causality relationship with freedom/independence, rights, competition, capitalism, profit maximization, and so forth. Weber (1930) hypothesized a deep connection between Judeo-Christian (especially Calvinistic) values and the rise of capitalism. He defined the spirit of capitalism as the ideas and habits that favor the rational pursuit of economic gain.” (pp. 18-19)

Getting back to the magga, its mental cultivation dimension receives the endorsement of modern science. No other path exists that brings out the need for mental development as a matter of prime importance.

Its wisdom dimension enables the journalist to get transformative insights in to the real nature of the world we inhabit.

  1. Mindful Revolution

A recent Time magazine cover story (Pickert 2014) drew our attention to the widespread adoption of doing things mindfully based on the mental cultivation dimension of the magga. The Mindful Revolution is currently sweeping the West because many devotees see mindfulness [samma sati] as an indispensable tool for coping—both emotionally and practically—with the daily onslaught” (p. 42). Mark Pearson explains how the mindful journalist could reap the benefits of all three paths of meditation, including right effort (vayama) and right concentration (samadhi). In short, the time is ripe for the emergence of the genre of mindful journalism based primarily on Buddhist principles as proposed in this book.

We believe that the several genres of journalism that emerged in the second half of the last century—development journalism, peace journalism, public journalism and other varieties—contributed much to change the lopsided news structure of the world dominated by the imperial” West. The Internet (supplemented by the Worldwide Web and the social media) allowed the developing countries a voice in the world or at least in their own region. However, despite these gains, the ignorance of the West about the cultures and happenings of the East remains comparatively high because of the intentional blackout of news by the free” media.  For instance, the December 2013 meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Sri Lanka was virtually blacked out by the U.S. media (Gunaratne 2013). Part of the reason for this condescension is the news value system built into the Western news paradigm still used by the majority of journalists in the world.  The adoption of a mindful journalism would necessitate a revision of the West-centric news values.

The printed newspaper in the United States is fighting a losing battle to survive beyond the middle of this century by returning to sensationalism and oligopolistic publishing. The aim of mindful journalism is not profit making but truthful reporting without institutional restraints that might defile the clarity of the trained journalist’s mind. By its very nature, its intention is not competition with commodity-oriented news, which appears to have entered its sickness-and-death (jaramarana) phase.

Magga-guided journalism

Guided by the magga, mindful journalism could establish a set of norms that perceptive human beings could use to compare and contrast with the traits of commodity-oriented news served in a hurry with all its warts or defilements.  Mindful journalism requires no written code of ethics but only a set of guidelines acceptable to most people in the world .

Its attitude, in Western symbolic terms, is similar to that of Winnie the Pooh. Its purpose is to co-exist with all other genres of journalism by setting a formidable example of enlightened journalism. However, the Pooh-way and the mindful way are not one and the same because Pooh follows the Daoist ziran-wuwei (spontaneity-action in nonaction) path while the mindful journalist follows the middle path conditioned by his/her environment.

While many would agree that that mindful journalism is unlikely to be compatible with celebrity and gossip journalism, they could still be optimistic that mainstream commercially driven journalists could apply the mindful approach to 21st century journalism for a range of reason:

  • The demonstration, in the light of the News of the World / Leveson episode, that mainstream journalism had lost its moral compass” and existing ethical codes and laws are inadequate without the tools for individual journalists and bloggers to assess their decisions using a functional schema tried and tested over 2500 years.
  • The loss of relevance of the traditional journalism codes of ethics at a time when journalism is so broadly defined, and so many citizens have turned publishers. Mindful journalism offers a logical moral framework to fill this gap.
  • The potential that the mindful journalism approach offers as a mechanism to appraise critically the ethical dimensions of new media situations – not just journalistic ones – such as the dynamics of the publisher-whistleblower-government relationships in the Assange and Snowden episodes.
  • The potential of the mindful journalism approach to fill the need for a universal code of ethics in the contemporary globalized, cosmopolitan and multicultural world taking into consideration the lessons learned from the resentment of Eastern journalists against the attempt to impose West-centric ethics and philosophy worldwide.
  • The benefits that mindful journalism stands to give both journalists and sources – and society more broadly through ethical and reflective truth-seeking and truth-telling.

Importantly, the adoption of this approach would reduce the likelihood of journalists being traumatized in their news reportage. An understanding and acceptance of impermanence and death is the key to coping with such situations, as mindfulness psychiatric therapy is demonstrating.

Buddha advocated the Middle Path because he knew that the total elimination of defilements lured by the five aggregates (skandhas) that constitute each human being was impossible inasmuch as cyclic existence (samsara) by definition was suffering (dukkha).

However, some exceptional and enlightened” journalistic kalyana-mitta (admirable friends), who have mastered the Middle Path of journalism outlined in this book, could help others in their professional fraternity to alleviate dukkha by controlling their defilements—the third person plural pronoun standing for journalists themselves, as well as their audience—to a high degree. We hope that the exemplary work of mindful journalism would reach the public through the multi-step flow of information dissemination.

(Please contact [email protected] if you need the reference list related to the citations  in the text of this essay)

4 Responses to “New book calls on journalists to practice mindful journalism—a genre befitting Digital Era”

  1. AnuD Says:

    It is important to establish new traditions for every thing.

  2. Nanda Says:

    I believe “mindful journalism” is very practical and can be achieved to 70% easily. It cannot be 100% since we all are not Arahants and posses greed , anger and delusion. If “mindful engineering” can be achieved to 90%, 70% for journalism is a possible. The benefits will be enormous.

    Problem with journalism is , journalists while proudly talking about their ethics, are the worst lot when it comes to mindfulness. They will decide what is good and what is bad according to their greed hatred and delusion. This does not happen in engineering , if it is cheated a disaster will happen.

    Buddha has implied Engineering as the best profession in a sutta, because they service the public with least amout of selfishness. On the other hand , journalism is difficult – it enhances ego, mislead the public (in various ways). Nowadays journalism reaches masses very fast and the inherent weakness of the profession will essentially ends of most journalist going to suffer in hell worlds after death.

    Good that Shelton ayya has chosen the right path.

    When are you visiting Brisbane again ? want to catch up with you.

  3. Arcadius Says:

    Nanda;

    Thanks for your comment. Should Shelton Ayya visit Brisbane, how would he locate you? Are you in touch with Kanthi WIjesoma, Niraj Kariyawasam or Poonam Wijesoma?

    Arcadius likes to know much more about the present whereabouts of the Borala family.

  4. Nanda Says:

    Yes. your sis. will come and C u next time.

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