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Buddhist Journalism in an Age of Global Distrust

By Justin Whitaker
Buddhistdoor Global | 2019-02-08 |
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Many Facebook users around the world are taking part in “Facebook Free February” (FFF) this month, a campaign that aims to get users away from their screens and social media to engage with the real world. The central aims of many in taking part in FFF are slowing their media consumption, being more mindful in daily life, and improving mental health. Social media, the main source of news for most users, has been shown to not only correlate with poorer mental health, but to cause increases in depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation, and more. (Forbes)

As users continue to question their use of social media, news organizations can be asked to reevaluate their place in the cultural malaise of modernity.

In January, The Guardian newspaper published a provocative article about Johan Galtung, a Norwegian professor who has had a powerful influence on global journalism over the last 50 years. Galtung wrote a 1965 study on journalism which appeared to say that “while importance and newness were crucial, so were sensation and conflict.” Inadvertently, this became a gold standard for news journalism. (The Guardian)

However, Galtung said his definitions were intended to show how news was getting it wrong. He stressed that his paper said that if news continued to reflect the world in this antagonistic way, it would generate extreme negativity, and “a growing tension between the centre and the periphery both nationally and globally.” (The Guardian)

It seems that Galtung’s concern was missed and that the media has continued to focus too heavily on negativity. And it also seems that we’ve already reached the hyper-polarized state he predicted. Similarly, existing media practices have weakened trust in the media for many people, while others have become apathetic:

The Edelman Trust Barometer published global research in late 2017 showing that on average 53% of people worldwide felt the system they lived in was failing. Respondents expressed a “sense of injustice”, “lack of hope”, “lack of confidence” and “desire for change”. In countries like France, Germany, Italy, US, Spain, the UK and the Netherlands, between 56% and 72% of the population described a meltdown of their trust in democratic society.

“News media are now so full of stories on misery,” said Hans Henrik Knoop, an assistant professor at Denmark’s Institute of Psychology. “Negativity controls news flow, and therefore also politics and public debate. Apathy or fear is the result. The risk is that people not only deselect media as sources for news, but also that they disengage in the public debate.” (The Guardian)

Several efforts have arisen over the years in the hope of countering this trend. One of these has been public or civic journalism, borne of the idea that journalists should engage with the public and critically examine information given by governments rather than simply reporting it. Stanford University Professor of Journalism Theodore Glasser wrote in The Idea of Public Journalism (Guilford Press 1999) that public journalism could be:

. . . a way of thinking about the business of the craft that calls on journalists to (1) address people as citizens, potential participants in public affairs, rather than victims or spectators; (2) help the political community act upon, rather than just learn about, its problems; (3) improve the climate of public discussion, rather than simply watch it deteriorate; and (4) help make public life go well, so that it earns its claim on our attention. (p.22)

Another movement has been that of “good news,” which aims to counter the onslaught of negative news by picking out and emphasizing positive stories. In 2001, the “Ethical Code of the Media” was created by the Good News Agency, encouraging publishers to give greater voice to positive events in the world. This approach has done well, championed by the likes of Upworthy and Buddhist-inspired sites such as Zen Habits and Tiny Buddha. However, these have also been criticized for lacking depth and focus in a time when critical reflection is most needed.

A third and more recent approach has been “solutions journalism,” which works to drive readers to responses to social problems in ways that empower and energize them, offering effective tools, inspiration, and insight into not just the problems of the contemporary world, but the ways in which they are successfully addressed. “What makes solutions journalism compelling is the discovery—the journey that brings the reader or viewer to an insight about how the world works and, perhaps, how it could be made to work better.” (Learning Lab)

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In September 2018, Lindsay Green-Barber, PhD, wrote that, “Solutions-oriented reporting increased news readers’ problem-solving skills, made people feel less anxious and more energized, increased their connection to the community, and more confident that they can come up with solutions.” (Media Impact Funders)  

In the midst of these and other emerging strategies to deal with contemporary media malaise, we might suggest the development of a uniquely Buddhist form of journalism, however nascent it might be at this time. Raymond Lam (senior writer for Buddhistdoor Global) has been a prime source of ideas and direction for the discipline. 

The challenge of Buddhist journalism is both to inform readers and to offer direction for development on the Buddhist path. This path is described in many ways, but the most common are the threefold: ethics, meditation, and wisdom (Pali: sila, samadhi, panna), and the extended Noble Eightfold Path. 

A year ago, Lam offered a vision abased on the Noble Eightfold Path in a Buddhistdoor editorial. Beginning with Right View, Lam wrote:

News is about the fleeting and transitory; news cycles come and go, and popular attention can move on from a salacious scandal or political drama as quickly as it latches on to it. Yet for Buddhists, there must be a narrative, an arc that bends away from ignorance and toward insight. This seems to be the Dharma journalist’s job: to chip away at ignorance about the root causes of all the suffering in the world, and to bring knowledge of potential solutions to the worst forms of suffering (deliberative journalism provides a possible model). (Buddhistdoor Global)

This is certainly an excellent start, and several other Buddhistdoor View editorials further develop the idea of Buddhist (or Dharma) journalism. Last summer, Lam attended the first-ever Asian Buddhist Media Conclave, which aimed to develop “Mindful Communication for Conflict Avoidance and Sustainable Development.” 

There, International Buddhist Confederation general secretary Venerable Dhammapiya directly challenged commercial media practices of focusing on the problems in society. Further, he suggested that any development emphasized needed to look inward as well as out to the world around us. 

This resonates well with the Eightfold Path approach advocated by Lam. Buddhist journalism can emerge as a platform for bringing light to worldly problems in ways that then turn toward existing and potential solutions. But these solutions must be grounded in Buddhist practices and ideals. If Buddhist journalism is to develop and regain trust from readers in a world where non-Buddhist paradigms are so vastly dominant, this will be a continual challenge.

See more

New Studies Show Just How Bad Social Media Is For Mental Health (Forbes)
Academic who defined news principles says journalists are too negative (The Guardian)
Ethical Code of the Media (Good News Agency)
What we know (and don’t) about the impact of solutions journalism (Media Impact Funders)
Solutions Journalism (Learning Lab)

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Buddhistdoor View: Revisiting Media Resolutions for 2018
Asian Buddhist Media Conclave Seeks Dharma-inspired Paradigms for Buddhist and Secular Journalism

More from Western Dharma

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