Mindful ethics for bloggers

By MARK PEARSON

[This blog was first published on the citizen journalism election site No Fibs, edited by Margo Kingston.]

Bloggers and citizen journalists come from an array of backgrounds and thus bring varied cultural and ethical values to their blogging.

No Fibs asks its citizen journalists to follow the MEAA Code of Ethics, and the journalists’ union has recently made a concerted effort to bring serious bloggers into its fold through its FreelancePro initiative.

This would have bloggers committing to a ‘respect for truth and the public’s right to information’ and the core principles of honesty, fairness, independence, and respect for the rights of others. Specifically, they would subscribe to the 12 key principles of fair and accurate reporting; anti-discrimination; source protection; refusal of payola; disclosure of conflicts of interest; rejection of commercial influences; disclosure of chequebook journalism; using honest newsgathering methods and protecting the vulnerable; disclosing digital manipulation; not plagiarising; respecting grief and privacy; and correcting errors. These can be overridden only for ‘substantial advancement of the public interest’ or where there is ‘risk of substantial harm to people’.

A decade ago in the US, Cyberjournalist.net cherry-picked the lengthy  Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and proposed its own Bloggers’ Code of Ethics.

All this is fine for bloggers who are former working journalists, student journalists who hope to work in that occupation, and for serious bloggers who view their work as journalism even though it might only be a hobby or attract a pittance in payment. But many bloggers make the conscious decision not to identify as journalists, and thus need to revert to a personal moral framework in their work.

I have been exploring this in recent months and have coined the expression ‘mindful journalism’ after finding that many fundamental Buddhist principles – applied in a secular way – lend themselves to serious blogging when other moral compasses might be absent. Parts of this blog are drawn from my paper delivered to the IAMCR conference in Dublin in June, 2013.

Please do not interpret this as an attempt to convert bloggers to Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist and believe that followers of any of the world’s major religions will find core values in their scriptures that serve this process just as well.

It is just that Buddhism’s Eightfold Path is a simple expression of key moral values that can underscore ethical blogging: understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation.

It was while writing my recent book Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued (Allen & Unwin, 2012) that I decided a guide to safe online writing required more than a simple account of ‘black letter law’. It forced a re-examination of the fundamental moral underpinnings of Internet and social media communication. Being safe legally normally requires a careful pre-publication reflection upon the potential impacts of one’s work upon one’s self and others – or what a Buddhist might explain in terms of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘karma’.

Dalai Lama’s recent book – Beyond Religion – Ethics for a Whole World (2011) – explored his vision of how core ethical values might offer a sound moral framework for modern society while accommodating diverse religious views and cultural traditions. Buddhist practices like mindfulness and meditation have been adopted broadly in Western society in recent decades and have been accepted into clinical psychology. Even the MEAA Code of Ethics states: “Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context.”

This is premised on the belief that journalists and serious bloggers can adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary which requires a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process. They would be prompted to pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their audiences. Truth-seeking and truth-telling would still be the primary goal, but only after gauging the social good that might come from doing so.

So what are these core principles and how might they apply to an election blogger?

Each of the constituent steps of the Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – has an application to the modern-day practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling – whether that be by a journalist working in a traditional media context, a citizen journalist or a serious blogger reporting and commenting upon political news.

Let’s explore its eight steps.

1. Right views.  A fundamental principle of Buddhism is that all things in the world are at once impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-substantial. News, too, is about the impermanent and the unsatisfactory. It is premised upon identifying to audiences what has changed most recently, focusing especially on the most unsatisfactory elements of that change. The notion of ‘right views’ can incorporate a contract with audiences that accepts a level of change at any time, and focuses intention upon deeper explanations of root causes, strategies for coping and potential solutions for those changes prompting the greatest suffering. In election blogging, it moots for less scare-mongering, more careful consideration of policies and the clinical testing of claims.

2. Right intent. This calls upon the blogger to reflect upon the genuine motivating reasons why he or she is blogging at all, then why they might be writing this particular commentary, and finally why they are selecting a particular turn of phrase or quote to make a point. Such a reflective approach can be revealing. How is humanity being improved by this action? Is it motivated in some way by ego or for the betterment of society? This might prompt a change in mindset from bringing news ‘first’ in a competitive sense but ‘best’ and most meaningfully to an audience in a qualitative sense. Of course, it would not be ‘news’ if were not delivered relatively soon after its occurrence, but in this era of instant communication this step reinforces the notion of ‘responsible truth-seeking and truth-telling’ – authoritative and credible news and commentary, obtained ethically, and delivered as soon as possible (after such reflection) to retain its relevance and utility without losing its veracity.

3. Right speech. This step relates to both truthful and charitable expression and, interpreted narrowly, that second element could present a fundamental challenge to the very concept of political commentary as we know it. It certainly places serious questions about the gossip and mud-slinging orientation of much political coverage. The notion of telling the truth and being accurate lies at the heart of journalism practice and is foremost in most ethical codes internationally. While a single empirical fact might be subject to scientific measurement and verification, any conclusions drawn from the juxtaposition of two provable facts can only constitute what a scientist would call a ‘theory’ and the rest of us might call ‘opinion’. Gossip about the private lives of politicians, barbed commentary, imposing labels upon them like the “Flimflam Man”, the “Mad Monk” or “Dr No”, and cynical mock-ups like the Daily Telegraph’s Hogan’s Heroes front page all fail the test of ‘right speech’. That is not to say harsh and uncomfortable truths must not be told.  It is the way they are told that is crucial to this principle.

4. Right conduct. The fourth step of ‘right conduct’ goes to the core of any moral or ethical code and invokes a reflection on the actual practices involved. Here, journalism codes offer useful guidance in their lists of “do’s” and “do not’s.” Even journalism ethical codes can gain wider understanding and acceptance by appealing to fundamental human moral values and not just offering a proscriptive list of prohibited practices. A recent example is the Fairfax Media Code of Conduct which poses questions employees might ask themselves when faced with ethical dilemmas that might not be addressed specifically in the document, including:

  • Would I be proud of what I have done?
  • Do I think it’s the right thing to do?
  • What will the consequences be for my colleagues, Fairfax, other parties and me?
  • What would be the reaction of my family and friends if they were to find out?
  • What would happen if my conduct was reported in a rival publication?

While this approach seems to focus on the potential for shame for a transgressor, it offers an example of a media outlet attempting to encourage its employees to pause and reflect in the midst of an ethical dilemma – what educationalist Donald Schön (1987, p. 26) called ‘reflection-in-action’.

5. Right living. The Buddha identified certain livelihoods that were incompatible with a morally pure way of living, shaped of course by the cultural mores of his place and time 2500 years ago. They included poison peddler, slave trader, prostitute, butcher, brewer, arms maker and tax collector. Some of these occupations might remain on his list today. We are left to wonder how the worst of political coverage – intrusion, rumor-mongering, name-calling, mud-slinging, and agenda-pushing for commercial purposes – advances the enterprise of journalism or the personal integrity of an individual journalist who chooses to ply that trade. This is where political bloggers working outside the mainstream media can distinguish themselves by applying a mindful approach to their work.

6. Right effort. The step of ‘right effort’ was directed by the Buddha in a predominantly spiritual sense – a steady, patient and purposeful path to enlightenment. However, we can also apply such principles to the goal of ethical blogging and citizen journalism in a secular way. We might sometimes see the hurried scoop and accompanying kudos as an end in itself. There can also be an emphasis on productivity and output at the expense of attribution and verification. Of course, stories and blogs could evolve into lengthy theses if they were afforded unlimited timelines and budgets. Commercial imperatives and deadlines demand a certain brevity and frequency of output. Both can be achieved with continued attention to the core principle of purposeful reflection upon the ethics of the various work tasks and a mindful awareness of the underlying mission of one’s enterprise. External factors will continually threaten a blogger’s commitment to this ethical core, requiring the ‘right effort’ to be maintained at that steady, considered pace through every interview, every blog, every working day and ultimately through a full career. As the Dalai Lama wrote in Beyond Religion: “The practice of patience guards us against loss of composure and, in doing so, enables us to exercise discernment, even in the heat of difficult situations (p. 142).” Surely this is a useful attribute for the reporter, citizen journalist and blogger.

7. Right mindfulness. This is the technique of self-examination I have selected as central to an application of these principles to blogging and citizen journalism. Effective reflection upon one’s own thoughts and emotions is crucial to a considered review of an ethical dilemma in a publishing context. It is also essential to have gone through such a process if you are later called to account to explain their actions. Many ethical decisions are value-laden and inherently complex. Too often they are portrayed in terms of the ‘public interest’ when the core motivating factor has not been the greater public good but, to the contrary, an ego or a commercial imperative. The Leveson Report into the excesses of the British press detailed numerous instances where such forces were at play, often to the great detriment to the lives of ordinary citizens. Buddhists (and many others) adopt mindfulness techniques in the form of meditation practice where they reflect upon their thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. While I have found this practice useful, I am by no means suggesting citizen journalists or bloggers adopt the lotus position in the midst of a breaking news to peacefully contemplate their options. The extent to which individuals might want to set aside time for meditation in their own routines is up to them, but at the very least there is much to be gained by adopting the lay meaning of ‘being mindful’. In other words, bloggers might pause briefly for reflection upon the implications of their actions upon others – the people who are the subjects of their blogs, other stakeholders who might be affected by the event or issue at hand, the effects upon their own reputations and the community standing of others, and the public benefits ensuing from this particular truth being told in this way at this time. There is a special need to be mindful of the vulnerabilities of some individuals you write about. Our own research has examined how coverage might impact on those who might belong to a ‘vulnerable group’ or who might simply be ‘vulnerable’ because of the circumstances of the news event. This concern for others also invokes the notion of compassion for other human beings, a tenet central to the teachings of all major religions, and a hallmark of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama explains that true compassion for others requires that sometimes we must call to account those who abuse power: “Depending on the context, a failure to respond with strong measures, thereby allowing the aggressors to continue their destructive behaviour, could even make you partially responsible for the harm they continue to inflict (Dalai Lama, 2011, p. 59).”

8. Right concentration. Some have compared ‘right concentration’ to being in ‘the zone’ in elite sporting terminology – so focused on the work at hand that there is a distinctive clarity of purpose. It is such concentrated attention that is required of consummate professionals in the midst of covering a major event. It is at this time that we actually enter ‘the zone’ and are able to draw on core ethical values to produce important reportage and commentary within tight deadlines, paying due regard to the impact of their work upon an array of individual stakeholders and to the broader public interest. It is in this moment that it all comes together for the mindful journalist or blogger – facts are verified, comments from a range of sources are attributed, competing values are assessed, angles are considered and decided and timing is judged. And it all happens within a cool concentrated focus, sometimes amidst the noise and mayhem of a chaotic news event.

We cannot expect the millions of bloggers and citizen journalists internationally to abide by a unified moral or ethical code. Some will draw upon foundational principles from the Koran, the Bible, the Torah or Confucianism. Others will reflect upon classic secular guidelines like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People or Rudyard Kipling’s If. And some of us might find guidance in these eight steps developed more than two millennia ago.

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2013

3 Comments

Filed under blogging, Buddhism, citizen journalism, Eightfold Path, free expression, media ethics, social media, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Mindful ethics for bloggers

  1. Pingback: The Man Without A Name To Get One – A Small Victory For Open Justice |

  2. Pingback: The man without a name to get one – a small victory for open justice | journlaw

  3. Pingback: We naturally have self-interest but it should be wise rather than foolish self-interest by taking others needs into account as well as ours. | philosiblog

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