5W1H + Mindfulness: Is this the future of journalism?

By Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, Sept 11, 2018

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? – also called the six sigma of information gathering are the tools taught at basic journalism schools. Every budding reporting cadet are drilled to probe issues and to deeply investigate using these methods.

But like any other tools, it is the intent of its use that decides the outcome of the application. In many cases, these “intent” is the agenda of the tool owners. These intent masks what Is known as media bias, which include (but not exclusive to) conservative bias, corporate bias, liberal bias and mainstream bias.

Many news outlets today openly declare that they stand for unbiased truth and transparency yet packages their presentation to suit the needs of their targeted readers or listeners, leading to what is often called as post truth politics.

If one turns on, say CNN (the USA), BBC (the UK), CCTV (China), RT (Russia) or even Al-Jazeera (Qatar), by and large debates are framed to appeal to emotions disconnected from factual focus, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which rebuttals are ignored.

With the advent of the internet and social media, the ease of viral sharing has perpetuated emotional debates. By cherry picking expert opinions to support a position and relegating facts as secondary importance relative to emotional appeal, the process encourages herd mentalities.

A skilled social media manipulator can easily channel different sets of communication to various groups that would allow certain levels of emotional pressure points to develop. The aim is simple: that is to foster adversarial views and ferment verbal and mental conflicts.

For instance, an unskillful handling of “balanced reporting”, that is, to report views from two extreme polar stance and then to provide facilities to allow unfettered, unmoderated discussions is a classic case of fermenting adversarial noises. The situation is then compounded by the short life span of current news, which in today’s term are measured in hours and minutes. Arguments and name callings that explodes in cyberspace are rarely resolved, and most go quiet as the news item’s shelve life expires soon after it is published.

Thus, the amber of anger lingers on. And thus, clashes between herds continue to be manufactured. The accusations by the Democrats against Russian meddling in the last US elections which many in the Republican party denies is a case in point.

Whichever way it is viewed, it is acknowledged that media bias is a fact of life. It is biased because when media owners establish their facility, a position of intent has already been taken up. In these circumstances, how then can mindfulness, or more specifically the Buddhist teaching of “Right Mindfulness” (Sammasati) play a part in promoting platforms for conflict avoidance?

This was the very matter brought up for discussion at the “Buddhist Media Conclave” held in New Delhi, India from August 26-27, 2018. Organized by the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) and hosted by the Vivekananda International Foundation, the two days conference sought to brainstorm how “mindfulness” can be used as a mindset for those involved in news making, aggregation and distribution.

One way to look at the intent of media owners is to understand the position or agenda assumed by them. The keynote speaker, Shri S. Gurumurthy Ji has an interesting take on this. He suggests to see if the position taken entails doctrinal tolerance or doctrinal intolerance.

Doctrinal intolerance would suggest an assumption of an ideology which is exclusive, a position that “I am right and you are wrong”, an approach that is “only”. Such exclusive ideology, which include religious views and certain fixation of modernity (for instance, capitalistic consumerism as the only acceptable lifestyle), are leading the world to conflict.

On the other hand, doctrinal tolerance is one of being inclusive, an approach that is “also”. An assumption of such a mindset no longer denotes an ideological stance, but a philosophical one. Gurumuthy Ji is convinced that the philosophical approach is key to the reduction of conflict, because before one criticizes another, one has to master the other side’s philosophy. This, he says, is the heart of dialogue.

And should both sides still cannot come to terms, then the next best thing to do is to “agree to disagree”. The aim of dialogue after all, is to enable conflict avoidance and maintenance of harmony.

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne, the prime mover behind the mindful journalism movement in Asia, opines that mindfulness can be used as a communication approach to reduce conflict. As “Right Mindfulness” is part of the Noble Eight-Fold Path, the approach requires training for deep listening as part of an engagement process for communicative dialogue.

Together with the five precepts (training rules on abstention from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech and mental intoxication – all factors of corruption are listed there), he believes that having exposure to these Buddhist teachings will provide the necessary tools for journalists to equip themselves to be mindful of all the circumstances and elements influencing their judgements and views when pursuing a story.

Famed Plum Village teacher Shantum Seth believes the teaching of mindfulness to journalism students will not be effective if meditation practice is not part of the curriculum. After all, there is no such thing as a balanced story coming from an unbalanced mind.

Former advisor to Bhutan’s royal family Dorji Wangchuk in his paper on “Middle Path Journalism” proposes that media should have the wisdom of “knowing enough”. This includes minimizing the selling of desire and dissatisfaction, balancing individual rights with considerations of impact on community through the release or withholding of a story, and compassion when covering stories that might have a “villain” or a “hero,” to neither over-vilify nor over-glorify either.

The rich exchange of ideas at this Buddhist Media Conclave outlined how much and where journalistic responsibility can have an impact on society. It is very much a value which is side stepped in contemporary journalism schools, particularly in courses offered by western universities.

Should western institutions decide that mindful journalism does not fit their view of what is to them a curriculum that is already perfect, then perhaps reputable academic institutions from the east can champion this important but ignored value.

As part of the Noble Eight-Fold Path, Right Mindfulness when practiced correctly is said to lead to the cessation of suffering. Cultivated as a professional value, a mindful journalist has the power to be more circumspective of the cause and effects of their writings, and to practice “Right Speech” as means to encourage harmonious exchanges between peoples.

In this era of short tweets and instantaneous social media postings, a careless and thoughtless message can cause the launch of a mob attack or even a nuclear war. The time has come for the training of responsible story tellers, who aims not just to get the word out, but to dare make a difference on how words used with a responsible conscience can motivate the arising of peaceful thoughts and actions in the mind and hearts of readers and listeners.

The time for mindful journalism has come. Story writers can do better.

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