Can Buddhism’s Middle Way Save Journalism?

Could Buddhism inspire a post-colonial and nonviolent media model that would surmount the technological maelstrom that is destroying traditional journalism? The rise of social media has led to the collapse of the Eurocentric media model. In a battle for supremacy, editors – once the arbiters of truth and gatekeepers of ideas and information – have ceded control to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and the bloggers.

Adding insult to injury, robots running on algorithms known as artificial intelligence and machine learning are said to soon replace journalists once prized for their erudition, discretion and perspective.

These were some of the issues discussed at a conference organized in New Delhi recently under the aegis of International Confederation of Buddhists, titled “Asian Buddhist Media Conclave – Mindful Communication for Conflict Avoidance and Sustainable Development.”

Certainly other answers are called for. The spread of fictitious news in the virtual world has real world consequences (for instance, in India erroneous and photoshopped Whatsapp messages have pushed mobs to mass violence and lynching.) The anarchy of the post-truth information marketplace – raising the banner of “free speech” – has pushed the mainstream newspapers and channels to vie often unsuccessfully with citizen journalists for viewership and relevance.

The realities of economics and falling advertising revenues have pushed media organizations that once cherished balance and objectivity further towards ideological extremes, or, equally worse, into the folds of corporate ownership.

It is little wonder then that academics, scholars and media practitioners are looking for alternative models of media and journalism.

Indic-Buddhist media model

As Einstein so famously observed: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

In a stirring keynote speech, Indian journalist M Gurumurthy envisioned an inclusive post-colonial vision of mass media that thrives on philosophy and inclusion rather than ideology and division.

All narratives feed on ideological conflict and hence the think-anew if- not-dismantle-our-dominant-media-paradigms. (“We need to rescue philosophy from the gas chambers of ideology,” Gurumurthy said.) Ideas have an increasingly shorter shelf-life, he said, pointing, for instance, to the now-defunct mainstream neoliberal economics of unfettered financial globalization that nearly pushed the world to the brink of Great Depression in 2008.

The secular and inclusive Indic and Asian philosophy that prioritizes dialogue and debate is the need of the hour because it would lead to a world that is less conflict-ridden and violent.

As General secretary of IBC Venerable Dhammapiya, a Buddhist monk and scholar from Indian state of Tripura, pointed out in his speech how journalists should highlight the positive aspects of news and refrain from incendiary narratives (“Journalists should not always focus on darkness, but on lightning the candle that brings light.”)

“Indic Buddhist civilization” could contribute to a new vision of media in the 21st century, said Arvind Gupta, the director of Vivekananda International Foundation, one of the co-organizers of the conference.

Media scholar Kalinga Sevaratne highlighted the need to encourage more dialogue amongst Buddhist traditions and to construct narratives that challenge the generally simplistic reporting and writings on Buddhism as a religion.

Sevaratne, who helped develop a UNESCO-funded Buddhist-inspired media program at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, proposed a human-centric journalism paradigm that could be offered to anyone regardless of religious and political affiliation.

The meeting discussed the content and duration, and certification of such courses, and how best to promote such novel media methodologies.

Middle-Path Journalism

Buddhist philosophy offers ways in which to not only rethink, if not replace, the Western media model but also provide fresh organizing principles and even conceptual norms for a new media model such as “Middle-Path Journalism” proposed by Bhutanese scholar Dorji Wangchuk.

Wangchuk, formerly media adviser to the Bhutanese royal family, believes that the traditional “Four Theories of Press” and the Fourth Estate model promote individual values and rights while Middle-Path Journalism prioritizes community well-being over individual freedom.

Dorji’s new model of journalism is heavily influenced by the experience of Bhutan. (It is based on four pillars of “community” and collectivism,” “compassion,” “commitment” and “contentment,” the last of which is the core concept of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness).

Already, within the context of Buddhist practice, similar guidelines have been proposed by others including Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who published social media guidelines for students in 2013 on how to be more mindful about their behavior on the Internet.

Such guidelines have much import in the wake of growing incident of sexual harassment allegations in the Buddhist community, which the conference also discussed in the context how to better cover Buddhism as a religion.

Mindful Media Network

Buddhist-inspired frameworks can serve as ethical guideposts for mainstream media when the theories of press, and the mantle of free speech on which it rests, seemed to have been severely challenged by social media.

To help instigate a paradigm shift in prevailing media models, the New Delhi conference pledged to launch a “mindful news network” – akin to a Buddhist Associated Press – under the aegis of IBC as well as training programs for media practitioners.

Buddhist teacher and practitioner Shantum Seth stressed the need to include not just academic and conceptual training but meditation practices into any courses on Asian centric model of journalism. The emphasis on meditation practice and experience, he said, is precisely what distinguishes Asian models of media from dominant methodologies.

A realistic starting point would be to offer short mindful meditation courses, aided by conceptual framework in Middle-Path Journalism, to professional journalists and writers and gradually expand their target audience. These can also be offered through both press clubs, journalists associations and other educational institutes.

The goal should be to make “mindful” and “Middle-Path” journalism as accessible and palatable to people across religious and national divides just as mindful meditation courses are offered around the world, purely based on their relevance as a solution to the real-world problems.

Tsering Namgyal is a Tibetan journalist and author based in Hong Kong. He is the author of the novel “The Tibetan Suitcase” and other works.