A RESPONSE TO OBSERVER EDITORIAL ‘A BRAVE NEW STATE MEDIA?’
Posted on February 28th, 2015
By Shelton A. Gunaratne (Professor of journalism emeritus, MSUM)
Kudos to the Sunday Observer new/old editor for writing the extremely accurate self-analysis of the pitfalls of “public-owned” media institutions in Sri Lanka (Sunday Observer, 22 Feb. 2015). I presume that he wrote this editorial by the grace of those who currently rule the roost at Lake House. Perhaps these folks have finally realized the utter futility of wasting public money on dispensing propaganda in the Web 2.0 digital era that has enabled citizen journalism to flourish because of both globalization and mediatization.
Media researchers in the United States assert that the printed newspaper in its present format may cease to exist by 2043 on the basis of trends in the rate of readership/ circulation decline. Although the printed newspaper in poorer countries may survive for a longer period, the digital revolution is bound to mark the eventual death of the print news media toward the end of this century. When the prices of i-phones and smartphones with many gigabytes of storage and access to the Internet fall below the monthly subscription of a printed newspaper, the life of the latter will come to an end.
The ever-changing parade of political sycophants who run the “public-owned” media institutions in Sri Lanka must understand the irrevocable changes that are occurring worldwide that makes managed/ controlled news an anachronism. Even during the heyday of Esmond Wickremasinghe, the father of the current prime minister, managed news at Lake House failed to prevent the rise of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the eventual take-over of Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL). Following “public ownership,” each successive government turned Lake House into its propaganda machine except for the “short-lived liberal honeymoon,” as the editorial puts it, under Chandrika Kumaratunge.
The crux of Buddhism tells us that the craving (tanha) for power and the hope to cling on to that power (upadana) is the reason for practicing managed/controlled news. This is the nature of the Five Aggregates (panca skandha) of which we are composites. The rulers who do not understand the operational dynamics of the three marks of existence—suffering (dukkha), no self (anatta). and impermanence (anicca)—fall into the trap of news management. They suffer in their eventual defeat and loss of face because of their failure to achieve mindfulness to understand the world as it really is.
Because of the failure of those who run the government to control their greed for power, the solution to prevent news management is to vest the “public owned” media institutions in a representative body of citizens agreeable to the majority and minority interest groups and selected by an independent commission. This body should not interfere with freedom of the press or of expression or with disciplinary action. Journalists should have the freedom to follow a universally acceptable code of ethics such as those specified in the Buddhist middle path. No legally binding code of ethics could be effective in the age of “citizen journalism” because control and freedom are not consonant.
Considering the changes in technology that created “citizen journalism,” the scope of journalism itself has broadened. Now, journalism structured to fit the printed newspaper or the typical broadcast in the Euro-American style of reporting no longer holds supreme. News values of the Judeo-Christian world—impact, prominence, proximity, conflict, the unusual, etc.—run counter to the philosophical/religious values in the East. Western news values emphasize individualism, conflict, competition, punishment, wealth, sex, crime, etc. whereas the Eastern emphasis is on social good, harmony, amity, compassion/ rehabilitation, modest living, sexual restraint, mental development, etc.
The implementation of Eastern news values will engender an alternative to Western style of reporting and de-colonize journalism more in consonance with Buddhist principles. The new style of reporting is identified as mindful journalism. Journalists in “public owned” media institutions should be trained to adopt the mindful approach, which to a large extent will obviate the need for managed news.
Here, I shall briefly explain how the samma vaca part of the sila (ethical conduct) dimension of the Noble Eightfold Path (viz., right speech, right action and right livelihood) has an application to the modern-day practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling irrespective of whether one is a journalist working in a traditional media context, a citizen journalist or a serious blogger reporting and commenting upon news and current affairs. Words, actions and occupation already underpin most versions of professional ethical codes, including journalism, but these values lack an articulated moral rationale for their existence. Most of the international ethical codes of practice were born of an Anglo-American approach to journalism.
The most basic form of moral discipline (sila) is the observance of the five precepts (pañca sila). These involve abstaining from taking life, from taking what has not been given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech and from intoxicants. All Buddhists in Sri Lanka—politicians, journalists, et al—voluntarily promise to observe these precepts every day although there appears to be a wide gap between promise and practice. At a secular and professional ethics level, the most relevant is the training in abstaining from false speech. Journalists applying moral discipline will enjoy the respect of their peers and of the thinking public. The clarity of mind reflected in their reportage will go hand in hand with the ease of conscience brought about by sound ethical practice.
Buddha explained right speech as “abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech, abstaining from idle chatter.” Mindful journalism training involves the journalistic application of these principles acceptable to all religions.
Buddha emphasized abstaining from false speech/ lying because there is no evil that a liar might not do. Bhikkhu Bodhi says it is important to consider whether the root of the lie is greed, hatred or delusion. Journalists strive for truth through the processes of accuracy, verification and attribution. Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath explain that serious falsities stemming from obvious greed (circulation and ratings) sometimes arise, and many such instances have been detailed in defamation cases in the courts and in important inquiries into media practices (e.g., Leveson 2012). No doubt on some occasions a motivation of hatred, perhaps grounded in the severe contempt for an individual or his/her background or position, sometimes also motivates a journalistic falsehood. And clearly delusion is a common cause of journalistic lying, particularly within the bounds of the definition offered by Bhikkhu Bodhi (1998): “the irrational lie, the compulsive lie, the interesting exaggeration, lying for the sake of a joke.” The latter two are common fare in the modern media, with the first sometimes described by the term “sensationalism” and the latter falling within the domain of what some call “satire” or humour.
Slanderous speech, as Pearson and Senarath point out, is speech intended to create enmity and division, to alienate one person or group from another. The motive behind such speech is generally aversion, resentment of a rival’s success or virtues, the intention to tear down others by verbal denigrations. Other motives may enter the picture as well: the cruel intention of causing hurt to others, the evil desire to win affection for oneself, the perverse delight in seeing friends divided. Mindful journalism training will enable journalists who often insult each other and their targeted victims through Web-based media outlets to cease and desist.
In this manner, we can narrow down Right Speech (in the Middle Path) by what it is not:
- idle chatter
- speech that does harm to self or others
Buddhist discourses also enable us to formulate a list of the positive attributes of Right Speech:
- correct timing (or in season)
- truthful and factual
- pleasant and soothing
- worth treasuring (significant and memorable)
- reinforcing other teachings (or moral values)
- with good-will (or Right Thought, the second step in the magga)
promoting unity, harmony and peace.
Training journalists to avoid the negatives and adopt the positives of Right Speech (samma vaca) alone will improve the quality of journalism in Sri Lanka. Add to this the virtues of Right Action (samma kammantha) and Right Livelihood (samma ajiva), the journalists in the “public owned” media institutions would cease to be political sycophants and assert their freedom with concomitant social responsibility.
However, competence in mindful journalism entails the extension of the practice to cover the Wisdom (panna) and Concentration (bhavana) dimensions of the Middle Path as well. We (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson & Sugath Senarath), the authors of the just released book “Mindful Journalism,” explain this new genre of journalism in detail.
Professor Gunaratne is the lead author of the book ‘Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach’ released in March 2015 by Routledge (New York & London).