Reflections on Journalism : From a Buddhist perspective

  Shelton Gunaratne is professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He is indebted to the participants who discussed his presentation on Buddhist journalism at a staff seminar at the University of Queensland on March 7, 2006. This is a condensed version of a much larger paper.

by  Shelton A. Gunaratne
Minnesota State University Moorhead

Abstract / This essay is intended as a valid introduction to a Buddhist approach to journalism. While journalism teachers continue to work hard on traditional models and push them into civic/social responsibility/and peace transformations, it is mandatory that totally new perspectives from across the globe be taken seriously too.

(November 22, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) A journalism grounded in Buddhist morals is most likely to produce (1) a journalism of healing because the goal of Buddhism is achieving the end of “suffering,” which connotes many facets of existence, and (2) a journalism of timely, truthful, and helpful speech based on the Noble Eightfold Path. This assertion comes from American journalist Doug McGill (2008), who claims that in Buddhism he “finally found ... explicit and practical morals of human communication.

Journalism based on original Buddhist philosophical principles—whose ethical-conduct component is similar to that of the Decalogue common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—could be a potent therapy tool for treating the communicative pathologies of the modern lifeworld (Habermas, 1984). Because Buddhism follows the middle path between capitalism and socialism, a comparison and contrast of Buddhist goals with traits of the contemporary mainstream news paradigm seems quite appropriate. Such juxtaposition might provoke objections considering that goals are normative while traits reflect performance with warts and all. Yet, analyzing the gap between traits/performance and goals/aspirations is necessary because the society at large possesses underlying but transformative beliefs and values, which engender normative journalistic goals.

Framework of Buddhist Journalism 

The search for a Buddhist-oriented journalism must begin with the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhist philosophy. The first truth (about existence) is that there is dukkha (suffering/sorrow). As McGill explains:

It is ordinary everyday suffering, aches and pains, mental moods and afflictions, sickness and death. On a social level, suffering in Buddhism is defined as any harshness, violence, and division of the community. A Buddhist journalism would therefore be aimed at helping individuals overcome their personal sufferings, and helping society heal the wounds caused by injustice, hatred, ostracism, and physical violence. Such a defined professional purpose would give the Buddhist journalist a measuring stick for each word and story produced: does it help overcome individual and social suffering? (McGill, 2008)

Existence has two other characteristics: anicca (impermanence), and anattā (no-selfness). Impermanence is usually treated as the basis for the other two. The timeless wheel of existence represents these three functionally related characteristics. Because everything is impermanent, there cannot be an unchanging or fixed self. Sorrow arises with impermanence. Where all is process, so is the self, which is not separable from its experience. Buddhism rejects “the conceit of enduring selfhood” associated with substantialism and reification (Macy, 1991, p. 109).
The following important journalistic principles are drawn from the first truth :

* Concede that everything is subject to ongoing change (anicca), the first of the three characteristic of existence (ti-lakkhana), and assume the role of constructive change agent rather than that of the defender of the status quo.

* Concede that no-selfness (anattā) is the reality of existence, and refrain from over-emphasizing individualism, which has a causal link with egocentrism (e.g., celebrity pitfalls). Focus more on cooperative efforts highlighting mutual interdependence at different levels— international/global, national, or local.

* Understand the reasons for the existence of dukkha (sorrow/suffering), and desist from using journalism to knowingly promote attachment to desire.

The second truth asserts that suffering arises from attachment to desire, and the third truth asserts that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. In “primitive” Buddhism, these two truths are succinctly expressed in the doctrine of paticca samuppāda (dependent co-arising). The early texts describe dependent co-arising as a four-part formula expressed in four succinct lines:

This being, that becomes;
From the arising of this, that arises;
This not being, that becomes not;
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.

Buddhist texts also explain dependent co-arising in terms of an interdependent chain of 12 conditional factors known as nidānas, upathis, or paccayas. These factors are referred to as this and that in the four-part formula.
Buddha has repeatedly asserted that an absolute first beginning of existence is something unthinkable. Many metaphors and analogies in the early scriptures clearly convey the interrelatedness of all causes. Textual evidence abounds that the relationship of the nidānas is one of mutual dependence. For example, nāmarūpa (name and form) arises conditioned by viññāna (consciousness) while viññāna, in turn, is conditioned by nāmarūpa. Thus the cybernetic feedback loops attached to the notion of mutual causality makes dependent co-arising an “interdeterminative” process.

The doctrine of impermanence (anicca) is integral to apprehend the meaning of dependent co-arising. Existence is suffering as it is associated with the mutual causality of the 12 conditional factors, which represent attachment to desire. Furthermore, the appearance of continuity (“order”) occurs within the reality of change (“chaos”). This contrasts with the linear view of causality that order requires permanence (equilibrium conditions).

The following journalistic principles are derived from the doctrine of dependent co-arising subsuming the second and third truths:

* Understand the significance of mutual causality for journalistic interpretation and analysis. Refrain from extensive use of linear cause-effect reasoning. Keep in mind that feedback loops condition both “causes” and “effects” and blur the conventional distinction between the two. Therefore, analyze problems and solutions within “articulated integration” (Macy, 1991, p. 185)—the middle path between atomism and holism.

* Advocate the need for humanity to work in harmony with Nature, including all its flora and fauna, because everything is functionally interrelated, and nothing is entirely independent. “There is no aspect of ‘I’… that is not conditioned or not interconnected with at least something else” (Kasulis, 2005, pp. 398-400).

* Discourage conspicuous consumption “since consumption is merely a means to human well-being” and our “aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption” (Schumacher, 1973, pp. 47-48).

We now turn to the fourth truth, which asserts that freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Middle Way or the Middle Path. This path has three functionally interdependent areas for practice: pañña (wisdom), sila (virtue or ethical conduct), and samādhi (concentration or mental development). It provides the Buddhist ethical guidelines, which journalism could adapt. As an overall ethical guideline, journalists should:

* Follow the Middle Way, and avoid the extremes on any issue. Journalism should convey the idea that people mattered--the approach that Schumacher (1973) proposed for economics more than three decades ago:

Now, we shall examine each of the paths enumerated under the three co-arising categories. Pañña (wisdom) involves two paths: right understanding/view and right thoughts/conceptions. These provide the practitioners of journalism (including public relations and advertising) the means to cultivate moral principles such that their output does not contribute to increasing dukkha. Therefore, the practitioners should

* Follow the path of right understanding/view (samma ditthi): the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths (that is, the understanding of oneself as one really is). “Buddhist’s intimacy orientation says I am moral when I am most truly myself” (Kasulis, 2005: 301).

* Follow the path of right thoughts/conceptions (samma sankappa) in its threefold form: thoughts of renunciation as opposed to those of sense pleasures; kind thoughts as opposed to those of ill-will; and thoughts of harmlessness as opposed to those of cruelty. This involves a commitment to ethical and mental self-improvement.

Sila (virtue or ethical conduct) involves three paths: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. These provide the essential ethical guidelines for a journalism based on Buddhist goals. The practitioners should relate these guidelines not only to their own actions but also to the actions of those who consume their output. McGill asserts that the Right Speech doctrine provides many of the tools and materials necessary for the healing purpose of suffering:

Let us now interpret these three Sila paths to fit journalism practice:

* Follow the path of right speech (samma vaca): abstinence from lying, divisive speech (e.g., biased opinion writing), abusive speech (e.g., defamatory writing), and idle chatter (e.g., gossip writing). [However, Asanga, the fifth-century author of several Mahayana texts, maintained that a Bodhisattva will lie to protect others from death or mutilation (Harvey 2000, p. 139).]

* Follow the path of right action (samma kammanta): abstinence from taking life (e.g., harming sentient beings intentionally), stealing (including robbery, fraud, deceitfulness, and dishonesty), and sexual misconduct. [Some Mahayana texts, e.g., Upāya-kausalya Sūtra, justify killing a human being on the grounds of compassion in dire circumstances” (Harvey 2000, p. 135). Similarly, a Bodhisattva may break the precepts of stealing and celibacy on compassionate grounds].

* Follow the path of right livelihood (samma ajiva) by personally avoiding and discouraging others from activities that may harm others (e.g., trade in deadly weapons, trade in animals for slaughter, trade in slavery, and trade in intoxicants and poisons). Some may include public relations and advertising also as harmful to the extent that they are seen “as encouraging greed, hatred and delusion, or perverting the truth” (Harvey, 2000, p. 188).

Samadhi (mental development) requires the practitioners to improve their moral discipline as an ongoing activity through three mutually interacting paths: right effort/ endeavor, right mindfulness, and right concentration (Kalupahana, 1995). Accordingly, the journalists should:

* Follow the path of right effort (samma vayama), which has four steps: the effort to (a) discard evil that has already arisen, (b) prevent the arising of unrisen evil, (c) develop the good that has already arisen, and (d) promote the good that has not already arisen.
* Follow the path of right mindfulness (samma sati), which has four foundations: reflection relating to the body (kāya); feeling (vedanā)—repulsive, attractive, or neutral; thought; and ideas (dhammā) pertaining to the experienced phenomena. (Such reflection enables one to overcome covetousness and discontent.)
* Follow the path of right concentration (samma samadhi), which consists of the attainment of the four preliminary stages of contemplation, which culminate in the development of unprejudiced perception or equanimity with regard to what is perceived. (This is also considered a middle standpoint in the way in which we perceive ourselves in the world.)

The perfection of all eight paths means reaching enlightenment. The characteristics of existence—anicca (impermanence), anattā (no-selfness), and dukkha (suffering/sorrow)—imply that a perfect journalism is not attainable. However, the Middle Path points out the multiple pathways available to practitioners to aim at reaching the ever-elusive equifinality. One should note that the Buddhist approach requires the journalists to improve (or purify) their minds through the paths of pañña (wisdom) and samādhi (mental development).1 The presumption here is that journalists with “impure” minds would produce “impure” journalism that would increase dukkha (suffering/sorrow) no matter what awards they receive.

Traits of Mainstream Journalism

Now, we will draw the principal traits of mainstream journalism implicit in the dominant Anglo-American news paradigm and examine how they differ from those of the normative Buddhist framework.

Hoyer (2005) analyzed the mainstream news paradigm in terms of five elements: the event, news value factors, the news interview, the inverted pyramid, and journalistic objectivity. For analytical convenience, we will sequentially examine each of these elements in relation to Buddhist goals.

The event: The mainstream paradigm thrives on “newsworthy” events, which must fit the 24-hour news cycle (gradually adopted by the wire services). News is ephemeral because an event is not a fixed entity.

* The news paradigm and the Buddhist perspective both recognize that news is anicca 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 the Buddhist approach sees it as a continuing process, which becomes increasingly complex as it reciprocally interacts with other factors.

News value factors: These are the criteria that journalists apply to determine “newsworthiness” of events and processes. Mencher (2006) lists eight news values: impact or importance (the predominant factor), timeliness, prominence (of the people involved), proximity (to the audience), conflict, the unusual, currency (or the sudden interest people have on an ongoing situation), and necessity (a situation the journalist feels compelled to reveal).

The first factor, impact, relates to events that are likely to affect many people. (Galtung and Rouge call it threshold while Masterton calls it consequence.) Mencher (2006) says, “The more people that are affected by the event, the bigger the story” (p. 59). Although this criterion per se does not contradict Buddhist goals, the doctrine of dependent co-arising requires placing it in context with the other co-arising factors. An event by itself is a news “atom” that does not explain the ongoing interaction and interdependence of relevant factors behind the event.

The second factor, timeliness, relates to events that are immediate or recent. (This is similar to Galtung and Ruge’s frequency.) Mencher (2006) says that timeliness is important in a democracy because the public has to react quickly to the activities of their officials. Mencher adds that timeliness is also important because “media are commercial enterprises that sell space and time on the basis if their ability to reach people quickly with a perishable commodity” (p. 58). The Buddhist perspective sees news as a social good, not as a commodity serving the profit-maximizing desire of businesses. The Buddhist approach, which is more concerned with process, does not see the need for immediacy at the expense of accuracy and analysis of the functional interaction of co-arising factors.

The third factor, prominence, pertains to events involving well-known people or institutions. (Galtung and Ruge see this as a two-pronged factor: reference to elite persons and elite nations.) Mencher (2006) says, “Names make news, goes the old adage, even when the event is of little significance” (p. 59). Thus, mainstream journalism is a journalism of personalities. This news value is antithetical to Buddhist values, which see no-selfness (anattā), impermanence (anicca), and sorrow (dukkha) as the three characteristics of existence. Personality journalism signifies individualism or atomism, which breeds egocentrism and sorrow. [Note that Islam, an Abrahamic religion, also has always considered individualism as subordinate to the collective community (Denny, 2005, p. 269)]

The fourth factor, proximity, relates to events that are geographically or emotionally close to people. (Galtung and Ruge call this meaningfulness.) Emotional closeness may arise from ties to religion, ethnicity or race. Buddhadasa Bhikku’s view (cited in Sivaraksa, 2002, p. 58) that the entire cosmos is a cooperative is clearly antithetical to proximity as a news value.

The fifth value, conflict, pertains to stories about “ordinary people confronting the challenges of daily lives,” “conflicts that divide people and groups,” or strife, antagonisms, and warfare (Mencher, 2006, pp. 60-61). (Galtung and Ruge’s negativity partly reflects this value.) Journalists have applied this news value to write narrative-style features incorporating the three elements of drama: man vs. man, man vs. self, and man vs. nature. The Buddhist view on applying this criterion depends on the purpose of the story. Event-oriented stories on violence, war, and crime—news “atoms” based on conflict—are not an essential part of Buddhist-oriented journalism. Buddhism holds that an interdependent society should bear equal responsibility for the social deviance of an individual whose existence has no self (anattā). Therefore, reporting conflict-based stories highlighting individuals is inappropriate. However, process stories analyzing the co-arisng factors for increase or decrease in crime and violence may be appropriate for society to take steps to rehabilitate wrong-doers.

The sixth value, the unusual, concerns events “that deviate sharply from the expected,” or “that depart considerably from the experiences of everyday life” (Mencher, 2006, p. 61). (Galtung and Ruge call it unexpectedness while Masterton calls it novelty) These include the bizarre, strange and wondrous. Journalists have applied this news value to write brights, sidebars, and features. The Buddhist perspective does not approve the use of this value to project any person, group, nation, or race in a negative light by deviating from the path of right speech and resorting to idle chatter. Too much emphasis on the unusual may mean a higher priority for event reporting (news as a commodity) than for process reporting (news as a social good).

The last two, currency and necessity, are more recent additions to the repertoire of news values. When a long-simmering situation will “suddenly emerge as the subject of discussion” (Mencher, 2006, p.61), the journalist applies the currency news value to report that situation. (Galtung and Ruge refer to it as continuity.) The necessity news value is applied when “the journalist feels it is necessary to disclose something that s/he has discovered,” which is essentially a “journalism of conscience” (Mencher, p. 62-63). (Galtung and Ruge’s consonance factor, media’s readiness to report an item, may be stretched out to resemble necessity.) These two factors are compatible with the Buddhist perspective when journalists write process-oriented news as a social good without the intention (cetana) of deviating from the eight paths subsumed under sila (virtue), samādhi (mental development), and pañña (wisdom).

The preceding analysis leads us to the conclusion that:

* Buddhist goals and mainstream 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, and necessity.

The news interview: Schudson (2005) contends that the journalistic interview was all but unknown in 1865, had become a common reportorial activity in the 1870s and 1880s, was widely practiced by 1900, and had turned into a mainstay of American journalism by World War I. Other scholars claim that the interview was introduced into tabloids by the 1830s along with police reports. Today, the interview is used to update news, as well as to provide multiple views on issues. Mainstream journalism also uses the interview to create human interest stories and to give the hard copy a sense of timeliness.

* Buddhist goals do not encourage the interviews that promote excessive individualism at the expense of the collective good. Building up personalities through journalistic interviews violates the truth of no-selfness linked with impermanence and sorrow. Interviews that elicit group thinking are preferred. Follow the middle path by not favoring specific sources for regular attribution

The inverted pyramid: Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) unambiguity and composition factors are more or less associated with this structure of news presentation, an invention to sell news as a more profitable commodity. Some believe that its invention was inadvertent. During the American Civil War, journalists were forced to file the essential facts first because of the unreliability of the telegraph facilities at the time. This practice became formalized for almost a century later when many readers showed a preference for the narrative style. Interpreting this element of the news paradigm, we can conclude that:

* 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 and not read any further thereby nullifying the purpose of process reporting.

Journalistic objectivity: Stensaas (2005) says that the notion of objectivity is at the core of the mainstream news paradigm. Objectivity became the shared professional norm of American journalism in the 1920s (Schudson, 2005). Journalism tried to achieve objectivity, inter alia, by using the interview to present all sides of an issue; by conducting scientific opinion polls on significant issues; by discouraging reporters from injecting their opinion into their stories; and by using computer assisted reporting to analyze and interpret data related to numerous matters of public interest. How does objectivity fit into a journalism based on Buddhist values?

* 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, p. 196).

Jayatilleke (1963) points out that in Buddhism “verifiability is a test of truth but does not itself constitute the truth.” Many truths in Buddhism “are considered to lie midway between two extreme points of view” (p. 359). The Buddhist theory of truth, as Jayatilleke explains, makes it clear that truth and therefore knowledge is “objective,” as telling us the nature of “things as they are,” which consists of knowing “what exists as ‘existing’ and what does not exist as ‘not existing’” (p. 428). This is the highest knowledge. 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 (p. 416). Thus, Buddha claimed himself to be neither a traditionalist nor a rationalist, but an experientialist. What the Buddha meant by objective knowledge was experiential knowledge that one could acquire through concentration and mental development (samādhi) and wisdom (pañña). This interpretation is far different from the notions of objectivity and truth in the news paradigm.


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