Posted on September 30th, 2015

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

Professor of communication emeritus, MSUM, and lead author of Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (New York: Routledge, 2015)

MOORHEAD, MN (28 Sept. 2015)– Because newspapers in Sri Lanka hide names of their editors and publishers from the general public while they clamor for legislation necessary for open government, I decided to mull over the dispositions/intentional actions (samkhara) aggregate of a few journalists/ publishers who have dedicated their lives for the sake of the Fourth Estate because of their love for journalism rather than for pecuniary benefits or fame. I continue to reap the benefits of their dedication electronically even though I live in a remote Prairie town.

All sentient beings– including the journalists, publishers, politicians, and assorted criminals–are composites of the Five Aggregates that Buddhists identify as namarupa (rupa = material form; nama = mind comprising sensation/feelings, perception, dispositions, and consciousness). Therefore, a being’s intentional actions or dispositions (sankhara) are conditioned by the interactions of these aggregates. Journalism reflects the intentional action of the journalist/publisher, who should use his/her mind consciousness to discipline all five of the aggregates of craving.

I will use the Five Aggregates framework to assess the type of journalism fostered by a selected few who have phenomenologically understood the folly of craving and attachment because a being” (often identified as I,” me,” s/he,” etc.) is an illusion of these aggregates, all of which contribute to interminable dukkha (suffering) associated with their anatta (no-self/asoulity) and anicca (impermanence/ inconstancy) characteristics.

LEAFY SPURGE: To the newspapers in Sri Lanka for their uncritical subservience to Western news values– impact, proximity, timeliness, conflict, the unusual and the bizarre, currency, and relevance –thereby making news a commodity rather a social good intended to lay down the foundation of a news culture conducive to promote cultural and social development of the country.  Our most recent book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics clearly presents Lankan journalists food for thought for initiating a new news culture that might propel journalism into an inestimable social good that many global journalists would want to emulate.

Thumbs down” to the current state of journalism in Sri Lanka because so far it has failed to produce even a single quality newspaper in any of the three official languages of the country — English, Sinhalese or Tamil — reflecting the characteristics of mindful journalism. Most of the influential journalists in the past who shaped our news culture were shamelessly uneducated on Asian history and philosophy as they reified Western science, culture and ideas. They ignored the seminal principles on morality/ethics propounded in the Dhammapada and Bhagavad Gita and invariably looked for intellectual guidance from the West.

Senior editor Manik de Silva, who has clung on to journalism like a leech (no offence meant) despite the poor salaries that journalists earn from the handful of newspaper groups, claims that he earned more money as a stringer for the foreign press, particularly the Associated Press, than as the editor of the island’s premier Daily News in the mid-1980s. Presenting a paper at a media workshop on communication challenges held at the Sri Lanka Institute in 1987, he used the analytical skills he learned during his year at Harvard to trace the country’s poor quality of journalism to the following:

  • Uneven quality of the news staff
  • Inability to attract the best and the brightest” into journalism in the absnce of financial incentives
  • Various constraints that bureaucrats and managers both in the private and state sectors placed on newsgathering believing that no news is good news”
  • Lack of a reliable communication system [which I believe is no longer valid]
  • Inadequacy of the journalists’ language skills, particularly in English [although I believe that high-level English skills are not vital for vernacular papers]
  •  Inadequate attention to business, human interest and other areas because of the journalists’ preoccupation with the state sector (government departments, corporations, etc.) and institutions like parliament, courts, and political parties
  • Reluctance of journalists to do higher-level investigative reporting that shows enterprise (Layer 2 type), as well as skills in analysis and interpretation (Layer 3 type) [inasmuch as they find it easier to get by with reporting surface facts–Layer 1 type– without digging deeper to discover the buried facts]
  • High cost of transport that discourages reporters from traveling to news spots without depending on office transportation
  • Limitations placed by the political orientation of different newspapers shutting out news from groups and parties that consider such media as hostile
  • Lack of an efficient information dissemination system in most private and public sector institutions

Even though we are in the digital era with smart phones, I-pads, and other electronic devices at the disposal of most journalists making their fact gathering and news dissemination easier, the 11 reasons that Manik highlighted almost three decades ago still remain valid in varying degrees. But Manik is thinking of news/journalism as a commodity only whereas I consider news/journalism as primarily a social good with emphasis on morality and ethics, concentration, wisdom and compassion–the genre that we now call mindful journalism. While conceding and admiring Manik’s contribution to journalism over a career span of more than half century that includes 20 years as the editor of the Sunday Island, I regret to observe that he failed to help foster a new news culture in Sri Lanka because of his obsequiousness to Western norms of journalism as critiqued by scholars like Johan Galtung.


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