26 October, 2021


Sri Lanka: Victory For Mindful Journalism

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

Dr. Shelton A. Gunaratne

Dr. Shelton A. Gunaratne

Perhaps for the first time in the history of English language journalism in Sri Lanka, the Sunday Observer has demonstrated the suitability and feasibility of using mindful journalism as an option for the Anglo-American style of Orientalist journalism that the oligopolistic wire services had spread worldwide since the American Civil War.

I refer to the exemplary editorial published in the Vesak issue of the Sunday Observer under the title “19A: Moment in History.” Obviously, the writer is someone who is conversant with Eastern history and Buddhist literature, not a snob who wants to disgorge his/her knowledge of Anglo-American history in defence of parliamentary democracy.

S/he begins the editorial with Buddha’s allusion to democratic practice in the Sakyan and Vajjian tribal republics of eastern India that survived until the fourth century BCE. Buddha was a staunch advocate of republican democracy. Other tribal republics that practiced direct/representative/constitutional democracy included those of the Licchavis, the Videhas, the Nayas, the Mallas, and the Koliyas. But, as far as I know, this may be the first time that a mainstream English language newspaper in Sri Lanka has traced principles of democratic principles to sub continental Eastern history rather than to the West. If so, this may signify the beginning of mindful journalism in the country because editors are becoming mindful of their indefensible reification of the West as the progenitor of democracy.

The Sunday Island Vesak editorial also commendably dealt with a Buddhist theme although it failed, in my opinion, to use the crux of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths—dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, and magga—to substantiate the need for tolerance of diversity within unity, to drive home the simple truth that most of our dukkha is the result of our unwillingness to comprehend that there is no self because all beings are composites of the Five Aggregates (material form, feelings, perception, karmic/mental fabrications, and consciousness), which are in a constant state of flux. Buddhism is not a religion but a phenomenology that everyone can investigate through mindful meditation. People of all religions can benefit from practicing Buddhist principles without compromising their own religious principles. An editorial with such a thrust would have been a supreme example of mindful reporting or journalism as a social good.

The Sunday Times, on the other hand, failed to apply the mindful approach by focusing its editorial on the diplomatic mission of the U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry without making the slightest attempt to analyze Kerry’s word and deed to the Four Noble Truths. Imagine an editorial writer’s audacity to defy the significance of Vesak by giving priority to the town visit of a Yankee Doodle. However, the Sunday Times had the good sense to publish a handful of in-depth Vesak features written by Buddhists believers like Primrose Jayasinghe, Mervyn Samarakoon and Ajahn Brahmavamso. But these articles were about special aspects of Buddhism; therefore they did not reflect the deliberate practice of mindful journalism.

Mindful journalism, as defined by contemporary communication scholars (see the book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach, published by Routledge in 2015) is the application of 15 secular principles drawn from the crux of Buddhism to the practice of journalism. It is a new genre of reporting and writing to shift the current status of news as a commodity to that of a social good.

Mainstream journalism in Sri Lanka uses the news values devised by Western journalistic philosophy to sell news as a commodity. It conventionally uses significance/impact, prominence, proximity, timeliness, conflict/controversy, relevance/currency, bizarre and the unusual as the criteria for judging what is newsworthy.

Impact signifies how many people are affected by an event. An example is the earthquake in Nepal or the tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka. Although both mainstream and mindful journalism share impact as a news criterion, the two parts company with regard to prominence (which emphasizes the high and the mighty against the hoi polloi) and conflict/controversy. Buddhist principles discourage class and caste distinctions because everything or being is inconstant and dependent on one another (as evident in the concept of anatta) thereby making dukkha coterminous with cyclic existence. Both genres share timeliness in the sense of what’s occurring now rather than what has occurred in the past or will occur in the future. But the Buddhist approach connects the past and the future with the present through the fourth aggregate (sankhara) whereas the mainstream approach is bereft of such insight. Both genres focus on dukkha, the mainstream with its emphasis on negative news; and the mindful with its positive approach to alleviate suffering. Thus, the two genres use the criteria of conflict and the unusual in different ways: the mindful approach tries the “news as a social good” to deter the negative attributes of the five aggregates from overpowering their positive attributes; and the mainstream approach uses the “news as a commodity” approach by emphasizing extreme freedom to let loose the aggregates of grasping with little concern for morals and ethics.

The mainstream approach depends heavily on conflict/controversy and the unusual/bizarre criteria to generate “human interest” news to make journalism a profitable enterprise. Thus it tends to sensationalize multifarious conflicts—political, ethnic, religious, socio-cultural, regional, global, etc.—thereby adding to suffering in samsara. Mindful journalism, in contrast, attempts to minimize suffering by producing news from the angle of harmony (accommodating diversity within unity). Its intention is to make news a social good rather than perpetuating it as a commodity for making money.

The practitioners of mindful journalism will avoid writing one-sided opinion columns (as, for example, in the Colombo Telegraph) wherein citizen journalists shoot from the hip to hurt their opponents and frequently use gossip as evidence invariably mistaking such indulgence as freedom of speech or of the press. Although a good many of these writers profess to be Buddhists, they do not understand the Buddhist truth that by resorting to such ad hominem and unsubstantiated attacks they hurt themselves because all of us are composites of the Five Aggregates.

Mindful journalism requires no top-down censorship. The mindful journalist has the responsibility of adhering to a code of ethics of his own based on universally accepted ethical/moral values embodied in the Buddhist five precepts and the Sila dimension of the Middle Path—right action, right speech, and right livelihood. All Buddhists believe that all parts of the “loka” is interdependent, interconnected, and interactive. Such a view debunks the concept of an absolutely free press—the Western concept of the idealistic Fourth Estate. Freedom without responsibility is not possible.

The intention of mindful journalism is not to eliminate mainstream journalism or any other genre of journalism. Globalization means accommodating diversity within unity. Rather than relegating mindful journalism as a particular deviant from the mainstream, it could fit in as a commensurate part of the practice of journalism in its full complexity.

Mindful journalism requires the modification of current news values to adjust to the socio-cultural needs of our native land rather than blindly following those nurtured in the West with their roots in Greece and Rome. Obviously, Buddhist and Hindu values are more pertinent to Sri Lanka while not ignoring the values of other cultures that compete with ours in the natural process of ongoing globalization or evolutionism. Globalization is a natural process whereas Westernization is not because the latter is a cultural imposition of the former colonial powers.

*Shelton A. Gunaratne – Professor Emeritus – Minnesota State University Moorhead

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Another Yankee Doodle Dandy and his
    fast food ideas!!!

    His psycho analysis of Sri Lankan
    editorials is laughable. He may be
    a one time Professor or an American
    know all.

    Does he know Sri Lanka? How much?

  • 2

    Amarasiri Perera’s comment is a supreme example of shooting from the hip by attacking the writer (ad hominem) rather than the argument.

    His unwholesome intention is to denigrate the writer thereby by violating both right speech (samma vaca) and right action (samma kammmanta).

    If someone has nothing useful to say, it is better to keep silent instead of violating the universal norms of ethics and morality.

  • 1

    Prof. Shelton Gunarathne.

    I think you should neglect amarsiri perera who can be the Amarasiri – a resident blogger commenting in every topic and through the day and week. BHis style is blaming every body and pretends he is from the indigenous people of Sri lanka.

  • 1

    This is an excellent article, introducing the concepts of mindful journalism. I liked the example given of sunday observer editorial.
    link: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/05/03/main_Editorial.asp
    I certainly think this editorial should be set in stone for future generations of Srilankans.

    Having lived my life during the time of ethnic (terrorist) war and having seen the journalists killed for mindful journalism, I do not think we are short of such journalists ( Lasantha, Iqbal Athas and innumerable tamil journalists).

    I certainly agree with he author on encompassing the buddhist, hindu values with christian values which were the pillars of current western democracy.

    However, I strongly disagree with the comment on Colombo Telegraph

    “The practitioners of mindful journalism will avoid writing one-sided opinion columns (as, for example, in the Colombo Telegraph) wherein citizen journalists shoot from the hip to hurt their opponents and frequently use gossip as evidence invariably mistaking such indulgence as freedom of speech or of the press. Although a good many of these writers profess to be Buddhists, they do not understand the Buddhist truth that by resorting to such ad hominem and unsubstantiated attacks they hurt themselves because all of us are composites of the Five Aggregates”

    Colombo telegraph came to limelight in an era where there was rule of anarchy and I think Mr S Gunaratne’s article is trying to undermine the useful contribution, colombo telegraph made to sri lankan journalism.

    I will restate native vedda’s favourite quotations from Voltaire
    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”

  • 0

    Ha ha!!! haaaaaaa!!!!! The learned Professori says
    my comments are a supreme example of “shooting from
    the hip.” Another Americanism. I forgive him for

    I do take serious exception to his lordly claim that
    my observations were to denigrate the write. Far from
    it but if the cap fits, please put it on.

    Who decides whether I have something useful to say
    or not? Is it the learned American Yankee Doodle Dandy
    Shelton Gunaratne?

    I, as a Sri Lankan citizen, who believe in Sri Lankan
    values have every right rpt right to say what I want as
    long as I keep to civilised norms. Truth hurts Professori.
    So don’t take umbrage under all kinds of things and snipe
    at others simply because they don’t agree with you.

    Facts are stubborn and comment is free. I am sure you
    have taught that to your students? Or have you forgotten
    them. Grow up!!

  • 0

    The Sunday Observer Article is an exercise in dishonesty. More than half the Parliamentarians voted for 19A because they were given no choice, not because they followed Buddhist tenets. The damage done to Sri Lankan political life by the Mahavamsa is well known. The Mahavamsa has killed thousands of Sri Lankans. So how would you describe the Sunday Observer editorial writer when he declares that the 19A vote in parliament “is the moment, then, for even greater deeds – perhaps on the epic scale of the Mahavansa’s Dutugemunu”.

    Amarasiri Perera is justified to say to Shelton Gunaratne “Another Yankee Doodle Dandy and his fast food ideas!!! “

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