Tag Archives: Eightfold Path

‘Right speech’, media law and mindful journalism – a work in progress


Media law is much more than a set of edicts in the form of cases and legislation as presented in many texts and as taught in many courses.

Professional communicators and students can gain insights into the law as it stands – and into how it might be reformed – by tracing it to its origins, revisiting it in its modern context, and by applying fresh perspectives to its analysis. It can also inform their newsroom decision-making on legal and ethical matters.

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Gunaratne’s seminal text – The Dao of the Press. A Humanocentric Theory

Defamation is a good example. Historically, people’s reputations were seen as part of their spiritual beings. As such, defamation proceedings were often brought in the ecclesiastical courts of the Church of England before the Reformation (Rolph, 2008, pp. 39-48.

A stab at someone’s reputation was viewed as an attack on their soul – to be judged only by God’s earthly adjudicators, the clergy. From the 16th century, defamation actions were increasingly brought in the common law courts, with the courts developing a list of allegations with which they would deal, without needing proof of actual damage being caused by the defamation (Morison & Sappideen 1989, p. 173). Yet even today the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists ‘detraction’ (essentially gossip – or disclosing ‘another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them’) as a sin – or an ‘offense against truth’.

Modern defences to defamation – like truth and qualified privilege – have been shaped by changing cultural, philosophical and political values, with truth as a defence heavily influenced by libertarians like Locke, Mill and Jefferson.

My recent work has involved the investigation of the ways Buddhist ethics might offer a useful framework for both journalism and media law. You can find an excerpt on my paper on ‘mindful journalism’ I presented to last year’s IAMCR convention in Dublin here.

I am not a Buddhist but I have seen the value of its application to modern phenomena and clinical situations like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ where meditation techniques have assisted with the treatment of anxiety and depression (Segal et. al, 2013).

Back in 2005 I attempted to use the Tibetan Buddhist mandala as a device to explain the complex competing interests involved when weighing up an issue involving privacy in the newsroom. (Pearson, 2005, see here.)

I have recently attempted to apply a Buddhist framework to the contexts of political blogging and election reportage. Colleague Tom Morton from UTS and I are using mindful journalism as a framework for examining a case study of an individual who wants a ban on his identity overturned by the Mental Health Review Tribunal in NSW.

My interest has come to the attention of a pioneer in the application of Buddhist systems theories to journalism – Professor Shelton Gunaratne – who wrote the seminal work in the field – The Dao of the Press – A Humanocentric Theory – in 2005.

He has compared his designated goals of Buddhist journalism with many of the traits of modern Western journalism in his insightful article in Javnost – The Public in 2009: ‘Buddhist goals of journalism and the news paradigm’.

Prof. Gunaratne has generously asked me to collaborate in a new project on mindful journalism also involving Dr Sugath Senarath from the University of Colombo.

Meanwhile, I will be attempting to articulate some of these principles – particularly the relationship between Buddhist notions of ‘right speech’ to defamation and celebrity journalism – in a paper I’ll be delivering to the Media Talk Symposium to be hosted by Associate Professor Jacqui Ewart in Brisbane on April 23-24 (schedule TBA).

That paper will be titled “Mindful media talk: exploring a Buddhist ‘right speech’ ethic in journalism and social media”. Its abstract reads:

Defamation and privacy laws – and journalism ethics codes – are problematic as guidance tools for news communication in the globalised, multi-cultural and multi-jurisdictional Web 2.0 era. This paper draws upon systems methodology (Gunaratne, 2005) to foreshadow an application of the Buddhist ethic of ‘right speech’ to journalistic and social media communication. The path of ‘right speech’ (samma vaca) was one step in Buddha’s Eightfold Path to enlightenment. However, taken at a secular level, it offers a useful theoretical framework by which to analyse media talk and guidance for those engaging in reportage and citizen journalism. Right speech invokes the avoidance of falsehood, divisive and abusive speech and gossip mongering. This paper explains its elements, distinguishes them from media laws and professional ethical codes, and uses examples to examine the extent to which it might accommodate ‘public interest’ / Fourth Estate journalism and celebrity news.

Watch this space for more posts on ‘mindful journalism’ as we explore its value as an analytical device and – perhaps more importantly – as a newsroom tool for ethical decision-making.


Key references

Gunaratne, S. A. (2005). The Dao of the Press: A humanocentric theory. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Gunaratne, S. A. (2007). A Buddhist view of Journalism: Emphasis on mutual causality. Communication for Development and Social Change 1 (3): 17-38. (Paper originally presented at the University of Queensland on March 8, 2006.)

Gunaratne, S. A. (Feb. 15, 2009). Buddhist principles can revolutionize news and journalism. The Buddhist Channel.  Available at <http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=70,7781,0,0,1,0#.UuMttWTnb-k&gt;

Morison, W.L. & Sappideen, C. (1989) Torts: Commentary and Materials, 7th edn.

Sydney: Law Book Company.

Pearson, M. (2005) The privacy mandala: Towards a newsroom checklist for ethical decisions. Refereed paper presented to the Journalism Education Conference, Griffith University, Tuesday 29th November – Friday 2nd December, 2005, Gold Coast International Hotel, Surfers Paradise, QLD Australia. Available: http://epublications.bond.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1263&context=hss_pubs

Rolph, D. (2008). Reputation, Celebrity and Defamation Law. Ashgate: Aldershot. Available: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=d7YO44MvD8QC&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Segal, Z., Williams, M., Teasdale, J. and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, Second Edition. Guilford Publications: NY.


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 2014


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

Election postscript: a mindful analysis of media coverage


[This blog was first published in the St James Ethics Centre’s Living Ethics newsletter, Issue 93, Spring 2013. See here.]

Australian journalists operate under an array of ethical guidelines, including the MEAA Code of Ethics and numerous employer and industry codes of practice.

hogansWhile these documents differ widely in their wording, they espouse common values of truth, accuracy, fairness and the public’s right to information. They disapprove of invasions of privacy, disclosure of confidential sources, discriminatory language, subterfuge, deception, plagiarism and conflicts of interest.

When it comes to assessing the ethics of news coverage of an event as broad in scope as a federal election we find some guidance in such codes but other moral frameworks can add value.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I have recently found value in applying some of that religion’s foundational principles – in a secular way – to the assessment of journalism ethics and have been sharing this approach with colleagues and students through my writing and teaching.

It is also a useful lens through which to review some key elements in media coverage of the 2013 federal election.

The approach centres on the belief that journalists 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. It calls upon them pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their sources and their audiences.

Truth-seeking and truth-telling are still the primary goal, but only after gauging the resulting social good or harm.

Each of the constituent steps of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – provides a framework for such analysis.

Space prohibits the examination of all of them here, but at least three issues arose in the election worthy of such reflection.

  1. Fact checking. The Buddhist notion of ‘right views’ focuses on a deeper explanation of root causes and the clinical testing of claims. The emergence of the ‘fact checker’ was a welcome development via Politifact Australia, the ABC’s Fact Checking Unit and The Conversation’s Election FactCheck. A longer term impact of such a tool might be that politicians are prompted to think twice before issuing scaremongering and outlandish statements.
  2. The News Corp anti-Labor campaign. The principle of ‘right intent’ calls upon us to reflect upon the genuine motivations for Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspapers adopting such a blatant and belittling attack on the incumbent government. Cynical mock-ups like the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and the Courier Mail’s ‘Send in the Clown’ front pages might be excused as tabloid fun but they hardly indicate ‘right intent’ and ‘right speech’ in the Buddhist moral framework. The motivation could surely not have been to gain circulation, given the fact that the coverage stood to alienate perhaps one third of readers. It will be fascinating to see at the next audit whether this stance accelerated the decline of those newspapers’ circulations. If the intent was to win influence with the likely government, then this should have been disclosed.
  3. Presidential-style coverage. Just because political parties choose to run a presidential style of campaign does not oblige news organisations to embrace it. The Buddhist principle of ‘right effort’ invokes a steady, patient and purposeful path and ‘right mindfulness’ demands a considered and reflective approach to reportage. Each of these is difficult when reporters are assigned to traipse around the nation and cover political leaders engaging in stage-managed, superficial appearances at factories, schools and sausage sizzles. It is belittling to the enterprise of journalism to see some of its leading lights – and notable watchdogs – being led by the leash as mere lapdogs. It was particularly noticeable in a campaign where neither leader made a notable gaffe. We are left to imagine what might have been revealed if only these political journalism superstars had been afforded the time to do some real digging. Sometimes being ethical demands us to say ‘no’ to an under-utilisation our talents, which was clearly the case here.

livingethicscoverThe ultimate test of ethical political reporting in a democracy is the extent to which that journalism best informs the citizenry to maximize the value of each and every vote. In that respect, Australian journalism still has much to learn.


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


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

Mindful ethics for bloggers


[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


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