VICTORY FOR MINDFUL JOURNALISM
Posted on May 9th, 2015

By Shelton A. Gunaratne Professor of communication emeritus Minnesota State University Moorhead   

Perhaps for the first time in the history of English language journalism in Sri Lanka, the Sunday Observer has demonstrated the suitability and feasibility of using mindful journalism as an option for the Anglo-American style of Orientalist journalism that the oligopolistic wire services had spread worldwide since the American Civil War.

I refer to the exemplary editorial published in the Vesak issue of the Sunday Observer under the title “19A: Moment in History.” Obviously, the writer is someone who is conversant with Eastern history and Buddhist literature, not a snob who wants to disgorge his/her knowledge of Anglo-American history in defence of parliamentary democracy.

S/he begins the editorial with Buddha’s allusion to democratic practice in the Sakyan and Vajjian tribal republics of eastern India that survived until the fourth century BCE. Buddha was a staunch advocate of republican democracy. Other tribal republics that practiced direct/representative/constitutional democracy included those of the Licchavis, the Videhas, the Nayas, the Mallas, and the Koliyas. But, as far as I know, this may be the first time that a mainstream English language newspaper in Sri Lanka has traced democratic principles to sub continental Eastern history rather than to the West. If so, this may signify the beginning of mindful journalism in the country because editors are becoming mindful of their indefensible reification of the West as the progenitor of democracy.

The Sunday Island Vesak editorial also commendably dealt with a Buddhist theme although it failed, in my opinion, to use the crux of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths—dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, and magga—to substantiate the need for tolerance of diversity within unity, to drive home the simple truth that most of our dukkha is the result of our unwillingness to comprehend that there is no self because all beings are composites of the Five Aggregates (material form, feelings, perception, karmic/mental fabrications, and consciousness), which are in a constant state of flux. Buddhism is not a religion but a phenomenology that everyone can investigate through mindful meditation. People of all religions can benefit from practicing Buddhist principles without compromising their own religious principles. An editorial with such a thrust would have been a supreme example of mindful reporting or journalism as a social good.

The Sunday Times, on the other hand, failed to apply the mindful approach by focusing its editorial on the diplomatic mission of the U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry without making the slightest attempt to analyze Kerry’s word and deed to the Four Noble Truths. Imagine an editorial writer’s audacity to defy the significance of Vesak by giving priority to the town visit of a Yankee Doodle. However, the Sunday Times had the good sense to publish a handful of in-depth Vesak features written by Buddhists believers like Primrose Jayasinghe, Mervyn Samarakoon and Ajahn Brahmavamso. But these articles were about special aspects of Buddhism; therefore they did not reflect the deliberate practice of mindful journalism.

Mindful journalism, as defined by contemporary communication scholars (see the book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach, published by Routledge in 2015) is the application of 15 secular principles drawn from the crux of Buddhism to the practice of journalism. It is a new genre of reporting and writing to   shift the current status of news as a commodity to that of a social good.

Mainstream journalism in Sri Lanka uses the news values devised by Western journalistic philosophy to sell news as a commodity. It conventionally uses significance/impact, prominence, proximity, timeliness, conflict/controversy, relevance/currency, bizarre and the unusual as the criteria for judging what is newsworthy. Impact signifies how many people are affected by an event. An example is the earthquake in Nepal or the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka. Although both mainstream and mindful journalism share impact as a news criterion, the two parts company with regard to prominence (which emphasizes the high and the mighty against the hoi polloi) and conflict/controversy. Buddhist principles discourage class and caste distinctions because everything or being is inconstant and dependent on one another (as evident in the concept of anatta) thereby making dukkha coterminous with cyclic existence. Both genres share timeliness in the sense of what’s occurring now rather than what has occurred in the past or will occur in the future. But the Buddhist approach connects the past and the future with the present through the fourth aggregate (sankhara) whereas the mainstream approach is bereft of such insight. Both genres focus on dukkha, the mainstream with its emphasis on negative news; and the mindful with its positive approach to alleviate suffering. Thus, the two genres use the criteria of conflict and the unusual in different ways: the mindful approach tries the “news as a social good” to deter the negative attributes of the five aggregates from overpowering their positive attributes; and the mainstream approach uses the “news as a commodity” approach by emphasizing extreme freedom to let loose the aggregates of grasping with little concern for morals and ethics.

The mainstream approach depends heavily on conflict/controversy and the unusual/bizarre criteria to generate “human interest” news to make journalism a profitable enterprise. Thus it tends to sensationalize multifarious conflicts—political, ethnic, religious, socio-cultural, regional, global, etc.—thereby adding to suffering in samsara. Mindful journalism, in contrast, attempts to minimize suffering by producing news from the angle of harmony (accommodating diversity within unity). Its intention is to make news a social good rather than perpetuating it as a commodity for making money.

The practitioners of mindful journalism will avoid writing one-sided opinion columns (as, for example, in the Colombo Telegraph) wherein citizen journalists shoot from the hip to hurt their opponents and frequently use gossip as evidence invariably mistaking such indulgence as freedom of speech or of the press. Although a good many of these writers profess to be Buddhists, they do not understand the Buddhist truth that by resorting to such ad hominem and unsubstantiated attacks they hurt themselves because all of us are composites of the Five Aggregates.

Mindful journalism requires no top-down censorship. The mindful journalist has the responsibility of adhering to a code of ethics of his own based on universally accepted ethical/moral values embodied in the Buddhist five precepts and the Sila dimension of the Middle Path—right action, right speech, and right livelihood. All Buddhists believe that all parts of the “loka” is interdependent, interconnected, and interactive. Such a view debunks the concept of an absolutely free press—the Western concept of the idealistic Fourth Estate. Freedom without responsibility is not possible.

The intention of mindful journalism is not to eliminate mainstream journalism or any other genre of journalism. Globalization means accommodating diversity within unity. Rather than relegating mindful journalism as a particular deviant from the mainstream, it could fit in as a commensurate part of the practice of journalism in its full complexity.

Mindful journalism requires the modification of current news values to adjust to the socio-cultural needs of our native land rather than blindly following those nurtured in the West with their roots in Greece and Rome. Obviously, Buddhist and Hindu values are more pertinent to Sri Lanka while not ignoring the values of other cultures that compete with ours in the natural process of ongoing globalization or evolutionism. Globalization is a natural process whereas Westernization is not because the latter is a cultural imposition of the former colonial powers.

The practice of mindful journalism is the way to go. It will dissuade the journalist from hurting others making him/her the judge of what the public should know. It will free the state from curbing freedom of expression. It will help remove the five nivaranas–sensory desire, ill will, sloth and torpor, restlessness, and doubt—from afflicting our social mind. And, as the Island editorial writer Prabath Sahabandu is fond of saying, everything is likely to be “hunky dory.”

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