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Buddhistdoor View: Revisiting Resolutions for Buddhist Media in 2018

The Big Buddha statue in Hong Kong, home of Buddhistdoor Global’s headquarters.

Our little blue planet has commenced a new orbit around our grand and ancient star. We have 365 new days to make 2018 a meaningful year that brings joy, comfort, and insight to as many people around us as possible. It’s perhaps best to approach New Year resolutions in this spirit: rather than worrying necessarily about specific targets, we should look at how we can make peace with habit patterns and neuroses that hinder us from “being well and being good.” Our resolutions should help us embody good examples, whether at the individual or collective level.

We at Buddhistdoor Global have been doing some thinking. What might be some resolutions worth upholding this year—resolutions that truly embody our Buddhist values? In 2014, journalism professor Mark Pearson published a paper outlining how the Noble Eightfold Path might inform a better code of conduct for journalists. Summed up, his eight critical guidelines in relation to the Noble Eightfold Path were:

Right View: Legitimate news reporting covers suffering while, subversively, refuting that such news is unique: life is dukkha, after all. 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).

Right Intent: Right intent in the newsroom means infusing our discipline and industry with the same sense of vocation that calls lay Buddhists to surrender their households and enter the monastery. The secular equivalent is the stereotypical but sincere motivation to change society in a positive way, no matter how insignificantly. Buddhist journalists aren’t out to deliver the “best” news “first,” but to deliver timely news, authoritatively and ethically.   

BBC One’s Field of Blood is a crime journalism drama dealing with ethical dilemmas in a fictional Glasgow newsroom, from withholding information from police to shifting editorial positions for increased circulation.

Right Speech: In a fundamental challenge to popular media as we know it today, Buddhist-informed journalism questions the value of celebrity gossip and sensationalism (particularly in the age of digital social media). It identifies the culprits of falsities and unkind speech in the ego of the reporter or editor. Yet it doesn’t rule out “uncharitable” or opinionated journalism altogether, for it can reveal wrongdoing or flaws that others have overlooked or ignored.

Right Conduct: Is it ethical for a reporter to investigate an abattoir incognito? Should journalists lie and sneak their way into political circles, the military-industrial complex, or the criminal underworld to obtain that high-stakes exposé? Such adventures have been popularized in numerous dramas and films about journalistic derring-do.

When facing ethical dilemmas, Pearson refers to Donald Schön’s “reflection-in-action” model, which denotes “the ability of the professional to reflect upon some problem in the midst of their daily work.” (Communication Ethics) For a journalist, the questions might be whether they could justify their action morally, what the consequences for their newspaper or platform might be, and how they might react if a different newsroom landed and published the story. Therefore, deploying a different identity for an investigation might be a kind of skillful means. However, if dramatized TV shows are anything to go by, such flexibility can end up as self-justification for misconduct. We must beware.

Right Living: The Leveson Inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press in 2011 and 2012 is perhaps the most extreme example of journalism having lost its way, of having become part of an unjustifiable industry of titillating tabloid stories. To what extent do tabloid journalism’s methods—spying, invasion of privacy, and spreading rumors—advance the journalist’s trade or integrity? A mindful approach allows one to gauge work practices morally and evaluate their promotion of or detriment to right living.

Right Effort: While Right Effort strictly means effort in meditation, in the context of the media professional, this can mean applying one’s energies to the proper task. One can “mistake the hurried scoop and kudos of the lead story in their news outlet as an end in itself.” (Communication Ethics) Beyond mere deadlines, journalists aren’t ego-free: there is prestige in writing for big publications, some correspondents enjoy being embedded in, and respected by, the high circles of policymakers and celebrities, and some editors seek to pursue personal agendas, often at the expense of journalistic quality. Continued reflection on one’s core purpose, and correcting course when necessary, is essential.

Audrey Hepburn’s breakout film Roman Holiday is not just about romance, but about Gregory Peck’s character’s moral decision to not publish his interview with Princess Ann to protect her privacy.

Right Mindfulness: Right mindfulness is the reporter’s deeply compassionate awareness and understanding of an individual’s vulnerabilities; whether they are from an oppressed group or minority, bear a disability, or have recently suffered tragedy or trauma. Ethical journalists do not take an adversarial stance simply because they relish the power trip, or because they want to hurt someone who disagrees with them. While the model of “Fourth Estate journalism” will always demand some kind of challenge to the powerful who are abusing their privileges or hurting others, Buddhist journalism aims for peace and minimal harm to as many as possible.

Right Concentration: Right Concentration is familiar territory for journalists. It’s the “zone” in which all distractions fall away and the writer enters a state of concentrated attention while covering a news event, writing a story, or putting the final touches and updates to an article. Taking into account deadlines, the benefit the piece will have for readers, and involved stakeholders, Right Concentration is the ultimate expression of cool multi-tasking, but also single-mindedness: completing an article while assessing angles and timing, verifying facts and the accuracy of quotes, and evaluating the piece’s overall purpose—all in a day’s work for a mindful journalist. 

We are all shaped in every single moment by events. The world is politically volatile, and global corporations influence the way we communicate and share information, and even the way we think. Climate change and our proposed transition into the Anthropocene epoch, the age in which humans directly impact the future of Earth, carry a sense of foreboding. There are also the perennial social questions of growing materialism, unhappiness, and alienation. The values promulgated by wider society often don’t take into account our interior wellbeing. For all of society’s advances and improvements, few of us feel fulfilled. Authentic resolutions should go at least some way to addressing these ubiquitous problems.

So what should we as Buddhist media members resolve to do? How should we behave? What should we fundamentally be and embody? We believe that reflecting upon the cardinal principles of the Noble Eightfold Path is a bold yet logical starting point. There are concepts commonly used by Buddhist and secular journalists alike: “mindful,” “compassionate,” “purposeful,” “reflective,” and so on. We hope to embody media virtues that the Noble Eightfold Path requires. We’ll surely fall short sometimes, however this remains our resolution, for this year and those that follow.

See more

Towards ‘mindful journalism’: Applying Buddhism’s Eightfold Path as an ethical framework for modern journalism (Communication Ethics)

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