Tag Archives: reflective practice

Helping identify a risky media law situation


There is no easy solution to helping journalists and other professional communicators identify a risky media law situation.

The first challenge is to be able to sound the alarm bells in the midst of researching or writing. Given a journalist or public relations consultant might be working on numerous stories, investigations, production or communication tasks in any day, what might prompt them to pause and assess the media law risks associated with a particular publication or action?

The answer has puzzled me for my 30 years of teaching media law, and it appears to lie in a combination of situational / emotional analysis and media law knowledge, supported by a routine system of mindful reflection.

I have recently revisited the issue with groups of working journalists, asking them to identify situations they believed prompted them to be on high alert for media law problems. I have combined their observations with my own into this table of situations and risks.

This table is a work in progress, so I would really appreciate your comments and suggestions for further categories as I work to fine-tune it for inclusion in our next edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law.






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 2017

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Filed under blogging, defamation, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

Interview Part 4 – Strengths and pitfalls of online courses


This is the fourth and final edited transcript of my interview with Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin, who recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education.  Over the past three installments we have discussed my design of an online / on campus course in media law (Part 1), how principles of ‘mindful journalism’ have influenced the course design (Part 2) and some suggested strategies to embed online learning (Part 3). This week we explore the strengths and pitfalls of online courses.

Q (David Costin):        What are the gaps and barriers that you see that hinder you as being an effective online operator? You’ve mentioned one about rules, about the boundaries of …. of the uni itself, but what other gaps are you seeing, or barriers?

A (Mark Pearson):         Time is a barrier, the time element, because the ideal, the face-to-face environment commits you to so many hours in the classroom, the students know you will be there, certain consultation hours, they know they can come to see you. The online environment is meant to be amenable to the learner, but it doesn’t necessarily sit with the teachers’ availability. So you know, whatever the learning problem, whether it’s just a technical thing with the quiz not working or whatever, the online student might encounter that at 3:00 a.m. because it suits their schedule, but to maintain one’s own sanity and life balance, one can’t be available 24/7 to online students. And sometimes they’ll get frustrated that they’ve had to wait to get a response. That doesn’t happen very often, but nevertheless, the ideal would be for them to get immediate responses to such problems, but that’s – until we get teaching bots – that’s some way away.

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         So that springs to mind as one constraint. Another is, I mean I talked about institutional barriers to the design, but there’s also the industrial labour issue of teaching online. And (my School) … has been very good with this and I have online tutors that are compensated comparably with the on-campus versions. For academic staff, there is the workload issue and that’s looking reasonable at the moment for online development, but it’s, you know, the risk is trying to force fit online to traditional models and to under-allow for all of this development and nurturing and engagement that has to happen for online to work, to undervalue that in workload and in rewards within the system.

Q:        Okay, so you’re saying so therefore part of that is I suppose a lot of your work is developing that relationship with students, but that’s not really fixed into any particular workload or that you could put a monetary value on it or anything else like that.

A:         Well it is, it’s so many hours of workload per week that you would devote to that and the jury is out as to whether that’s enough to cater to that many online students, isn’t it? I mean teaching is somewhat of a calling and you suffer angst if you think your students are being underserviced, but the more hours you put into it, the lower your hourly rate becomes, you know, for whether you’re a casual worker on so much per hour, you’ve done your hours that were allocated, but there’s some student crying for help. You know, what do you do? Your calling tells you, you offer the help.

Q:        That’s right.

A:         You then become a volunteer and that’s nice for you and me at this stage of our careers, maybe we can afford to be volunteers a little bit, but the struggling young mum or dad that’s trying to feed the family on sessional …

Q:        Yeah, wages.

A:         … rates or whatever, it becomes a – I believe if it’s managed poorly and it’s undercompensated, it’s an exploitation of people in those situations.

Q:        Well it becomes an ethical type of practice I suppose.

A:         Mm.

Q:        You mentioned before, you’ve done a couple of courses within . about supporting – about the development of online. What are the support structures that you’ve found have really helped you in the development of your online course?

A:         Workload allowance for the development. So I mean academic workload is done on a formula that changes regularly within institutions. It’s a points-based formula at the moment, but it’s meant that I haven’t had to teach a full load of classroom teaching in the semesters that I’ve been developing or … revising the (online) courses. So the institution’s been willing to take a full professor out of the classroom to invest in the design and then the offering of such courses.

Q:        Okay.

A:         The other – not so much constraint but important impediment – in this area is the fact that a lot of work is done in the establishment of online courses, but there has to be, just as in vehicle maintenance, there has to be a schedule of service maintenance updating, freshening. And unless that is allowed for in the budgetary and workload approaches of the institution, what you get is what sadly has become the fate of online distance correspondence courses through the ages, is that you just get people who may or may not care about it anymore and the course is just getting rustier and rustier, the readings getting older and older, the technology is being further and further behind the state-of-the-art at the moment and this obviously is going to impact both enrolments but more important on the learning that’s happening in the course – rusty courses.

Q:        It’s a good term, I like that term, ‘rusty courses’. And I’ll go back to – and this is, of course, I suppose one other question I was going to ask, you mentioned at the start you believe there was more courses adapted to the online environment. In your opinion, what do you think, is it more, like this particular course is more gravity, more orientated towards online? Are there other courses you think are more orientated towards the online than others, in what you’ve experienced so far?

A:         The term ‘hybrid courses’ or ‘hybrid learning’ is bandied around.

Q:        Yeah.

A:         I haven’t seen a very strict definition of it. For some people it seems to mean some online components to a standard course. To others, it means a course that can be undertaken fully online or on campus. With this one, it is the latter and I’ve tried to make it so that it is as valuable a learning experience to the online student and also that opportunity is fully available to the on-campus students.

Q:        Flexibility, yeah, comes through all the time. And I suppose, you know, this kind of comes on to the last question in that in the course that you’re developing for the online, but you’ve taken your own thinking processes and you’ve I suppose looked at where you want the kids to be, the students to be, but what other things do you do that strengthens your own skills in that teaching and learning environment, the students’ environment?

A:         What do I do that strengthens my own skills?

Q:        Mm, what do you do? Obviously you reflect upon your teaching.

A:         Yes.

Q:        Which is one of those – knowing things that work.

A:         Yeah.

Q:        But do you depend on – do you go and talk to your other colleagues about other strategies you can utilise or do you go and experiment on a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and come back and incorporate those things?

A:         Well I’ve done both of those things. I write about some of these experiences and practises in the academic literature. I maintain a blog, which I’ve been doing for about five or six years now, with – it varies, but with like a monthly contribution, but there’s been two in the last two weeks, you know, it’s just according to time and what happens, called Journlaw, which has a mixture of things to do with commentary or snippets about media law, abstracts and excerpts from my writings or articles, just referring people to those things. And when I do those guest interviews, I’ll throw them on there, so there’s sort of a central place where students and others can go there. And I’ll do mini reports or live blogs of conferences with relevance to that area, so instead of just going to sleep as a delegate at a conference, I’ll keep myself awake by taking a couple of photos and writing a news story about the presentation and whacking it onto the blog, those sorts of things. So there’s that, there’s the academic output. I have done a few of the MOOCs as you mention. What else do I do? The academic’s life, I’ve noticed, the pressures and demands over many years has become more intense in recent years than it was in the earlier stages of my career. So I don’t do as many sort of learning and teaching grant applications, writing about learning and teaching in learning and teaching sorts of journals or got to many of the seminars for staff and that sort of thing, just because there’s only so many hours in the day and certain priorities, KPIs you’re rewarded for.

Q:        Yeah, so what you’re saying is you’re prioritising what you believe as part of the important strategies that will help you through the parts of your course.

A:         Yeah and I do some leisure reading about it. In other words, if I’m an airport bookshop and there’s a – I mean that thing with the formative quizzes and repeating the question just came from some random popular book on embedding learning that I found in an airport bookshop and I was interested in reading about, but it’s not something – I mean the thing I do read a lot about at the moment is Buddhist ethical principles and mindfulness and that kind of thing, so that is influencing me a lot at the moment.

Q:        But you’re adapting too.

A:         Yeah, whenever I do those things, I think is there a way that that has relevance to either my research or my writing. And I build some of the principles into the research. So we did a big ‘Reporting Islam’ project which is just finishing up now. I finished in December, but it’s about a $900,000 over three years that we’ve just done. It had many dimensions to it, but part of it was developing this app …. And so my colleague has continued with the project, is negotiating with future hosts for it and everything. But associated with this were a lot of training courses we developed for journalists, a handbook on Reporting Islam, a newsroom handbook that is there in PDF version as well as we printed a few copies for our expert panellists and so on. But I guess my point is, this thinking around the online stuff has also led to a very practical research project which has academic outputs but also newsroom and social application. [Calls up www.reportingislam.org ]. So you start to get, like I recorded this interview with (journalist Peter Greste) – I didn’t record it, I took a cameraman to report it and it talks about the importance of reporting upon Islam accurately, basic information about the religion and things that get commonly confused, some basic myths about some of the common things like the different types of headdress or whatever. And then so going from that, basic terminology and then putting it into practice with a checklist for journalists to identify, like a little quiz on how inclusive their newsroom is, basic reporting tips, protocols they should follow when reporting Islam and the voices of journalists who are respected from a range of media about pitfalls in misreporting of Islam. Then very importantly, driving home with students the effects of misreporting …

(Audio visual playing)

A:         … the impact on people in the community and what bad reporting or negative reporting, associating them all as terrorists and whatever can have. And so this is taken from another body of literature with permission with our actors’ voices talking about their focus group.

(Audio visual playing)

Q:        Okay.

A:         But we had actors and photo stock images to capture the person that’s said those things in those research projects. And I have recorded these interviews with different experts about the research.

(Audio visual playing)

Q:        Mm.

A:         So journalists and students can get that actual research base to the effects and then similar to what I’ve done in the media law thing, we’ve developed scenarios that actually have all of the components here for practice reporting on a Muslim issue. So the scenario is explained, there are tasks that they have to do within a two-hour class, you know, council papers about a proposed mosque, tips that they would follow in reporting some images that we’ve had taken that they choose from for it and a selection of quotes, including some of which are actually live acted.

(Audio visual playing)

A:         That kind of stuff and a similar one on a terror arrest, because that’s a commonly misreported scenario with an actual court case following it and so on. And then a list of resources and people, journalists can go to. So that was quite an achievement, but the reason I mention it is a lot of these same principles have gone into there. So there are the mindfulness principles, – what’s my intent with this story?, why am I going to cover in this?, what’s the language I’m going to be using?. All of that’s built in to some of the resources.

Q:        It’s also that lived experience, isn’t it?

A:         Mm.

Q:        You’re there, so from where I sit, you’ve got that lived experience of what you’re seeing. You’ve got your background as to that journalism component, plus the ethics coming in on top of that, plus the mindfulness.

A:         Mm.

Q:        So it comes together in a product, one way, that can be practically and which people can then access and I suppose that end point for where they want to be.

A:         That’s the idea of it. We won the Queensland Multicultural Award last year for media, communication.

Q:        Wow, well done indeed. Well thank you very much for your time.

A:         Alright, okay, absolute pleasure.

Q:        I’ve enjoyed it.


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 2017

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Filed under blogging, Buddhism, defamation, Eightfold Path, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mental health, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

Interview Part 3 – Strategies to embed media law learning


This is Part 3 of my interview with Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin, who recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education.  Over the past two installments we have discussed my design of an online / on campus course in media law and have examined how principles of ‘mindful journalism’ have influenced the course design. This week we explore some strategies to embed media law learning.

Q (David Costin):  Obviously you’ve thought about that end point [of students applying their media law knowledge in the workplace].

A:  (Mark Pearson) … I have the opportunity and the good fortune as a consultant to be able to train some journalists in the workplace … and I’ve done that for more than 20 years …. That feeds back into the loop because quite often in the class are my own students from these classes and it’s interesting to see what they do or don’t remember, although I haven’t actually formally tested that. So what niggles away at me, at this late stage of my career, is that I haven’t seen many of my graduates – I can’t recall my graduates getting into actual legal trouble and that would be one sign, but nevertheless, I sort of say ‘there but for the grace of God walk I’, you know, because you do know there are those 50 per cent students and they might have been away the day we did defamation (although it’s very unlikely, there’s a fair bit of it in the course).

Q:        Yeah.

A:         And these days they’re often, you know, going to be contractor workers rather than fully employed by an organisation, perhaps running their own blog. And so in the area of contempt, jail is a possibility, a substantial fine, certainly professional disgrace and in defamation there’s huge damages; they can lose their family home. And thankfully I haven’t seen that happen to my students, but it’s an area where if they were away the day they did one of those important things, then it’s a risk. So what is the retention of this knowledge in the workplace? That would be a wonderful research project to go back and revisit some of these people years on or whatever. I mean you know, media law training session only last year I had one of my students from 20 years ago at another institution, you know, so there are people there that would provide data for it I suppose.

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         But I mean maybe I’m half scared to do so because it’s a worry, the extent to which they may not actually retain much of that knowledge (laughs).

Q:        But you know, I can see, you know, that again, that reflective stance drives, you know, I suppose where you want and it’s also updating that course at the same time, because as you said, you know, this area’s changing so much all the time.

A:         Mm.

Q:        And I suppose it also feeds into the question of, you know, what do you see is effectiveness in this environment.

A:         Mm.

Q:        So what you just indicated a student from 20 years ago, came back and came on the course, but is there other things that you see, other than the stats at the end of every semester, as being effective in this environment when you’re teaching in the online environment?

A:         Well I remember an earlier lecturer I worked with in my career talked about seeing the ‘whites of their eyes’, you know that expression?

Q:        Mm, yep, yep.

A:         And there are moments where you see that, that you know the knowledge at least for that one student is deeply embedded and has made a real difference. And from time to time you get that – I had that only yesterday, right? It was only a very small moment, but I’m very conscious of mindful practice being dismissed or being looked at sceptically as sort of some new age thing or being dismissed by other academics or whatever or students thinking I’m pushing some religion on them or something like that. So when I tell them about that, I frame it in terms of both the Buddhist principles – meditation and mindfulness – but also (Donald) Schon and reflective practice, but I’d also introduce them to a term that rarely any of them have ever heard of which is form the psychological and educational literature called ‘metacognition’. And I talk about that as either thinking about your own thinking or reflecting upon your own learning, depending on whether you’re looking at it from psychology. So in this particular class yesterday, I had an African law student in the class and I’d done that early in the – like week one or two of the semester – and yesterday (in the final week of revision) we were just talking about something, I can’t even remember what the topic was, and she said, “Ah yes, that’s metacognition. I’ve just practised metacognition.” And so to me, that’s a success, that’s just a skerrick of evidence of someone having learnt something in the course.

Q:        The ah-ha moment.

A:         Yeah, yeah. But the very important change we’ve made with the course this semester meant that I was getting that feeling a lot yesterday in my lectures as well and that’s because I’ve gone from, partly through very pragmatic and practical reasons, I’ve gone from a sit-down final exam in a lecture theatre – open book but handwritten into exam books – … I’ve gone from that to a take-home finale difficult problem, take-home exam over 10 days; 1500 words, written in exam style, loosely referenced but just so as answering those same basic questions, but a finale problem. And they submit it via Turnitin, plagiarism detection and all of that. And in the lectures yesterday, it hit home how important that is. Because I read somewhere some time ago that there are all pros and cons to, you know, obviously there’s security issues with take-home exams …

Q:        That’s right.

A:         That may happen. But in the lectures yesterday, here was a fully engaged class, many of whom I’d never seen before. They may have been following it on Lecture Capture or whatever, but here they were, for Professor Pearson to walk them through the take-home exam problem and to speak – I spoke in what you might call cryptic or code terms about the issues that were arising and highlighting on the screen the things that they might identify, without spoon-feeding them and giving them all the answers and reinforcing the fact that the students who had engaged in all the learning activities will know what I’m talking about here, that this word, confidential source here means certain things, it means things from different parts of the course, (etc). Well, they were just fully engaged because they had a vested interest in embedding this material for 40 per cent of their overall grade for the course. Now the difference is that the sit-down exam tests the level of knowledge that they know at that point for whoever knows how long afterwards, that they may have crammed for that two hours in week 12 or 13 or whatever it happens to be. This one is – if they’ve done the course, it’s designed so they shouldn’t take more than a day to do it, but some of them have the chance to actually engage with all of that over those 10 days, if they’ve never even come to a class, and I’ve got much more hope because the test mainly drills defamation and contempt, which are the two big ticket areas and it’s my way of being a little bit reassured that people would get over the line with their final take-home exam are at least familiar with those terms and understand a bit of their operation in a hypothetical newsroom environment.

Q:        Okay.

A:         So there are pros, there are cons, but I could see learning happening in a traditional lecture yesterday, which is somewhat unusual, sadly.

Q:        Unique.

A:         Yeah, yeah.

Q:        Okay, so two questions. You’ve established then your own benchmark, using that process, you’ve got your own type of benchmark in the back of your mind, as to what you want the students to achieve using this process?

A:         The take-home exam?

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         Yeah, well yes, we still have to have a final moderation meeting for the tutors for the marking of the exam, but the pass point will be a demonstrated ability to identify those key issues of media law and to come up with a plausible navigation of those issues in such an environment and showing a basic knowledge of some key laws and cases that would inform that decision.

Q:        Okay. So then the other part of the question is, where did you come across this idea or have you adapted along the way or it’s been an experience, you know the take-home exam experience has been something that you’d wanted to try, or you’d read about it or you’ve adapted it before over the period of time?

A:         Well as long as I remember, there have been take-home exams in some university courses and I’m wracking my brain, thinking of one I’ve ever done myself as a student. I can’t think of one right now. It’s a small extension of a more intense newsroom exam situation that I’ve run at an earlier institution with my media law students, which was the sit-down open-book exam where it’s actually given to the students and then they can either sit there or go away, phone a friend, do whatever they like, as a journalist would do in that environment and come back in two hours with their answer. So it’s an adapted version of that which I hope is actually going to work better. But a point I was going to make earlier about the design of online and everything is that there’s a lot of pragmatism and there are a lot of sort of constrictions or institutional boundaries that you have to work within while you’re still trying to engage with students and enhance their learning and cover the appropriate content. And I mean luckily journalism doesn’t have some industry accreditation as well, you know, because I’d hate to think in accounting or law you’d also be managing those external – or psychology – you’d be managing external requirements as well. So the design of such courses is kind of its own cryptic crossword because for every decision you’re making about a certain format or learning tool, you’re having to think, is this going to work on the Nathan campus, is it going to work on the Gold Coast campus, how does it operate with OUA, what are the online students going to be able to do with this, what are the institutional rules around this? Because the institutional rules have things like no more than 20 per cent of online assignments in the course, you know, that kind of stuff. And so how do we navigate all of these things but still come up with a coherent, meaningful curriculum and pedagogy that’s actually best practice? That’s the challenge, I mean I don’t know whether I’ve achieved it here, but it’s a work in progress.


NEXT WEEK: Strengths and pitfalls of  online courses


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 2017

Leave a comment

Filed under blogging, Buddhism, defamation, Eightfold Path, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mental health, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

Interview Part 2 – A mindful dimension to media law course design


Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education and has kindly allowed me to reproduce sections of that interview transcript in my blog.  Last week, in the first edited installment, we discussed my design of an online / on campus course in media law. This week we delve further into how principles of ‘mindful journalism’ have influenced the course design…

Q (David Costin):        Okay, so it’s practical – so I suppose what you’ve done is you’ve set up so it’s a practical, interactive course with reflection at the same time, which would then assist them in their development down the track with it, I suppose.

A (Mark Pearson):         The approach incorporates – the mindful journalism part of it is incorporating the idea that journalists aren’t going to be able to sit there and meditate in the lotus position in the newsroom, but if they learn to pause to reflect and they learn to take opportunities to do so, whether it’s on the train to work or in what others might call a ‘smoko’ break at work and they think through some of these basic principles there, then the theory goes that they might eventually, after doing this many times, be in what both Schon and others call ‘in the zone’, which is basically the consummate expert being able to reflect in action, but it being somewhat of an innate process so that they are almost subconsciously reflecting upon their learning to make the right decisions in those moments. And the basic Buddhist principles that go into my writings about all of this are from what is foundational to all of Buddhism called the ‘Eightfold Path’. And it’s not a religious thing, in fact some call Buddha the first psychologist and phenomenologist, but the principles are ‘right understanding’ – so this is from 2500 years ago, all right and it was meant for monks, but … part of the integrated reflection and he made a big point of saying all of this is integrated, it’s not just one or the other, the path is not uniform steps, but ‘right understanding’. ‘Right livelihood’ – so how does what I’m doing match my livelihood? Is this what I went into it for? You know, which is very important for journalists in this modern environment. ‘Right intent’ – so what is my intent here with this story or this, (from my perspective), with this lesson or this interview today? o basically having that partly considered. ‘Right speech’, because back then it was just oral, but that’s all form of communication and in multimedia it’s very important for journalists to think, you know, ‘how am I communicating this?’, ‘am I using both the right form of expression in speaking to this source or student or whatever it happens to be?’, or and also the way I’m actually putting the words together. ‘Right action’, so what behaviours am I exercising and should I exercise in this situation? ‘Right effort’, and the effort is all-embracing because it comes back to, you know, ‘how often am I reinforcing thinking about this, you know, reflecting upon these issues?’. ‘Right mindfulness’, which obviously for the monks it’s hours of meditation, but for the working journalist, it’s a moment of reflection – just to stop and go, “Oh, okay, I did media law today, what did I really pick up from that?” And that’s embedding the learning through reflecting.

Q:        Reflective practice, yeah.

A:         Yeah and the final one is ‘right concentration’ and that’s being ‘in the zone’, that’s basically putting it together so that it’s all happening and you’re able to adapt any of those elements appropriately for the circumstances.

Q:        I like that because in a couple of weeks’ time I’ve actually been asked to speak on a panel to third year students and I could see that translating across very, very nicely indeed as to their effectively – what they see and into a long term view, because that’s beautiful.

A:         Yeah, well to be quite frank, while I work in journalism, I can see that applying at an ethical and a practical level very much in teaching and it could be some – I mean I’m late in my career, but it could be at some stage I move part of it across into there and apply it there as well.

Q:        Mm, no, it’s simple. I mean to say, that’s a firm foundation, isn’t it?

A:         It is, yeah and it’s not ramming some religion down someone’s throat.

Q:        No.

A:         It’s basically a map of life.

Q:        Yeah, exactly right. And I suppose that comes on in the next question too, I mean to say, when you’ve been reflecting and then you’ve altered the course at the same time, so then I suppose the next question is what do you see as an effective operator in that online environment to your students? Because obviously, you know, you’ve got an encompassing overview of what you want to do, okay?

A:         Mm.

Q:        But what do you see as being an effective operator in that online environment for you?

A:         Yeah, it’s – no course or approach can be all things to all people. And I believe in my area, a professional area, only some curricula areas are particularly well suited to online, to totally online delivery.

Q:        Okay.

A:         So I don’t think anything and in fact Schon was all about the teacher is the coach and the studio environment. For professional education, I really think nothing beats the shoulder-to-shoulder coaching by a real …

Q:        Person.

A:         … experienced practitioner, just as the concert pianist, how effectively are you going to become a pianist by doing an online course in playing the piano? Yeah, some people might, you know, and there could be – these days there are all sorts of ways you could envisage that.

Q:        Yeah.

A:         But the question is, would any of them match sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with the maestro in a studio situation, masterclass situation, for at least part of that journey? So I’m lucky that media law and the other course that I’ve designed here for public relations and crisis communication people called ‘Social Media Law and Risk Management, they lend themselves to that because you know, these days it’s much of the way journalists communicate and because of that knowledge base to the thing and then the problems that are written problems, accompanied by a whole bunch of AV material. So you’ll see that there’s those mini lectures which MOOC experience has told us is best done up to 18 minute bursts. So this one goes just beyond it at 22 minutes for the very first one and it’s …

(Audio visual playing)

A:         All right, all that sort of stuff. Now that’s the mini lecture and so that’s reinforced for online students with just a copy of the slides. And then there is, as you’re probably aware, from …. University there’s also the full slides that are available through the Lecture Capture.

Q:        Yeah.

A:         So that’s the full two-hour version, one hour and 50 and some of them will want to immerse themselves in that, but it’s proven to be not that effective a way of, certainly in its analogue form, it’s actually very effective for foreign students particularly, the videoed lecture version, because they like to slow it down in the pace, pick it up for the, you know, so there are certain students that like that. And there’s also, I mean the genre of university study, there’s something about having lectures like that, rather than just having a bunch of materials you could get on any old MOOC, you know, so there’s something about the full-on thing. So the slides and the lectures are there for them as well. Now we make both campus’ lectures, which are repeats, available to all the students and the reason for that is occasionally there is a glitch with the recording, but more of a problem for my class is typically they’re – well this semester they were timetabled on a Monday and a Tuesday and you have the public holiday problem.

Q:        Yeah, okay.

A:         So that way the whole cohort can go to the other day’s lecture, because we had Anzac Day on a Tuesday and then the other Monday public holiday, so at least they get the lecture that week. So there are those things and then in addition to that, some people are very visually driven and over the past, the time I’ve been here at …., four-and-a-half years, I’ve put together a number of interviews, some of them are on Skype, with experts in the field or people who have been through that particular media law experience. And every one of the modules has one or two of these guest lectures. So what that does is give an anchor in the real newsroom experience to complement the theory, I suppose, or I try to make it as far from theoretical as we can in the class, but just so that they’re seeing that there’s a practical edge to it. The other thing is that although we might from time to time get a live guest, I will try to film that professionally because that’s just a one-off thing and lost forever unless it’s captured for other students to enjoy. It’s very rare you get a live guest who will appear at both campuses in that week and otherwise it just becomes part of the Lecture Capture experience and is just a one-off for that trimester ever.

Q:        To utilise again and again, like you said.

A:         Yeah and the final element is in each of the modules I do a – I got this off the MOOCs, ‘Office Hours’ – and the ‘Office Hours’ is basically positioning yourself in my home or work office.

(Audio visual playing)

A:         So you’ve got the idea of that and that’s what we’re talking about there within the …

Q:        Mm.

A:         Yeah, it’s just amazing, it’s 400 students and at any moment you’ve got people that haven’t studied for a long time or they’ve got various stressors in their life, they’re not very technologically literate and it’s just amazing how many still don’t know to press that. So that basically tells them a lot more about the actual assessment.

Q:        But it’s interesting from my side looking in because you’re accommodating and I suppose this is your character, maybe it’s part of your own character too, that you can accommodate – you’re accommodating, you’re also entrepreneurial, because I haven’t seen anything like that before.

A:         Oh really?

Q:        Yeah, yeah and it’s quite interesting.

A:         Have you gone on MOOC though?

Q:        Oh yeah, I’ve done – yeah.

A:         When MOOCs came out, I immersed myself in a few of those just to pick up from that experience.

Q:        Okay and that’s certainly coming through as well, that people go out on their own and experiment and then come back and bring that wealth of information with them at the same time.

A:         Mm.

Q:        So obviously – and the flexibility, because you’ve obviously, from your own life experience as well, you realise that students are doing different things at different times. So you take that flexibility into account as well. So I can see those things coming through.

A:         Yeah.

Q:        And also that reflective practice.

A:         Yeah, yeah.

Q:        One of your other colleagues actually used the term ‘pracademic’.

A:         Oh okay, that’s nice.

Q:        It is a nice term because all your work is practical, very practical and it’s aimed at I suppose the end point of where you want your students to be.


NEXT WEEK: Strategies to embed media law learning


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 2017

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Filed under blogging, Buddhism, defamation, Eightfold Path, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mental health, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

Designing a media law course for reflection in action



Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education and has kindly allowed me to reproduce sections of that interview transcript in my blog. Here, in the first edited installment, we discuss my design of an online / on campus course in media law.

Q:        In the online environment, what theory and pedagogical knowledge do you draw upon when you’re operating in the online environment?

A:         I can mention a principal theory that’s driven a lot of my career and I carry into the online environment… My first major point is that I believe theory and pedagogical understanding and approaches are crucial to teaching in the online environment. But they are not necessarily something that you are conscious of every day of your teaching. I think it’s fundamental to your learning in the area, it’s fundamental that you revise that occasionally, revisit it, but my own experience is it’s not something that is at the forefront of your mind as you’re teaching every class. So, the main pedagogical approach which is entrenched in a theory that I’ve used since the 1980s and have carried into the online environment is Donald Schon’s work in teaching – The Reflective Practitioner. My area of journalism education is very much about preparing students to do what Donald Schon called ‘reflect-in-action’, which is basically when they are confronted with new situations in the newsroom (or these days in various professional communication environments), that they will also be able to reflect, sometimes innately (like I do on pedagogies and theories). In that same way, one should be confident that they can reflect on what I have taught them and be able to solve their own problems, whatever they may be, technologically and ethically and professionally in changing environments. So to my mind, if that is done properly, then you effectively have someone who is a change agent and is able to reflect in action upon their education, no matter how long ago that may have been, to shape and be able to come to a consciously right decision in their work in a new context. And that’s my take on the Schon approach.

I have something to add to that though and that is in more recent years, since 2013, I’ve developed what – I’ve worked with colleagues and have coined the expression ‘mindful journalism’. Because in my undergraduate years, I did explore some Eastern philosophies and so on and in more recent times I’ve used meditation practises for various reasons in my life and have rediscovered Buddhism, but from a secular perspective. So in other words, some of the foundation stones of Buddhism are actually very secular, reflection in action practices. So mindful journalism is something I’ve actually built into my media law classes, teaching students how to reflect in action because my biggest worry in teaching media law is that a graduate who may have only passed with 50 per cent result, may not be able to recognise in the newsroom the legal risk that should be apparent to them. So I’m using this as a way of embedding an approach that hopefully deepens their knowledge at the tertiary level enough to be able to carry with them into the workplace.

Q:        So your basis, then, is working from that practical on-the-ground reflection status, would that be correct?

A:         That is correct. Obviously media law has two major components to it. One is enough knowledge about and familiarity or literacy to do with the language of law, to be able to understand what defamation or contempt of court or confidentiality, these sorts of things are. And the second element is the actual putting that into practice, to be able to navigate those laws effectively in a highly competitive, under resourced, time poor, stressful news environment where there are other imperatives, in fact there are very significant rewards for pushing the boundaries of the law in a technological era based on clickbait and page views. So the challenge within that is being able to do that both in the classroom environment, but also in an online environment, so there’s no reason why media law, from that content end of the equation, can’t be taught very effectively both in the classroom and online or in a hybrid way.

Q:        Okay.

A:         It’s only recently we’ve really ramped up the online offering of the course and so I’ve had to encounter the challenges of being able to capture that for students just working in a fully online environment as well. …So the course, as I’ve redeveloped it for this year, well for the past few years, but I’ve really refined it for this year, has a dovetailed knowledge-problem based approach. So it’s textbook driven. The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law is the main textbook used in the field throughout Australia … which has little exercises and things in the back of it. Clearly in law you just have to cover certain topics, but unlike a standard legal text, you would already see in the textbook itself, being The Journalist’s Guide, a handbook for communicators with the chapters and headings reflecting – it’s not what they – typically a law textbook is what they call black letter law. … It’s multi-dimensional.

So the second element is a problem based approach and it used to be we had a problem a week that they were dealing with a scenario and now we’ve narrowed that down so they are having more time to work with particular problems and they’re getting guidance within that. So there are, over the course, four or five problems that they work with over the 12 weeks and the first three are submitted as a learning journal approach to the problems. Not learning journal as in “what did I learn from it?”, but learning journal as in a record of their answers to key newsroom law questions that they would need to answer about these things. So if you go to the actual course itself, all of this material is available to the students who are on campus and online.

Q:        Okay.

A:         And I mean we have a very good – within our group here, we have a very good blended learning team based out of Mt Gravatt and they run various courses and a couple of years ago I did the online learning course. A lot of this has been developed with their curriculum design assistance. But the idea is that the students – there’s a certain suite of activities and a lot of it is to do with developing their understanding of reflecting on their learning, even from the very early stages. So in the early slides, it explains the actual – this is just the mini lecture, so there are only three slides here, but it has the study plan of what they’re expected to do as part of their course.

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         So it’s a little, just like a five to 10 minute mini lecture, there’s a learning problem that they preview early on and there are online discussion boards or tutorials or both that they can attend. They read the relevant chapters and the study guide and earlier on it was starting to get to the point that even the textbook talks about mindful practice and the textbook navigates what I call the “legalities and the realities” of media law. In other words, it’s not just about what’s legal and illegal, it’s about how one might navigate legal risk within a work environment and not just for journalists but for public relations practitioners, other new media entrepreneurs, those sorts of things. So they read the chapters, there’s an online study guide as well …

Some people prefer the print material, so they get just a basic run through the main areas. The learning problems are set up with each learning problem the student having to consider the scenario that is put to them in the terms of what are the main media law issues arising in this scenario, what laws and defences might apply, what cases or examples would you draw upon or talk about or to make your decisions there and assuming your goal is to publish as much of it as is legally allowable, you know, what are you going to do in this situation. Or there’s a longer one here, the really prickly things that we normally really hone in on are ones to do with situations involving defamation and contempt of court. There should be really problem two here somewhere, it was like the arrest of a sex murderer on Moreton Island, … – with little study tasks for the online students, which are normally quite similar to the ones at the back of the textbook chapters, although there are a couple of variations in there. So they answer the end of chapter questions, the study guide and the textbook, complete the formative quiz, so that’s something I picked up from the blended learning people, that the – and also just a bit of reading around that area of knowledge, because there’s that knowledge base component.

At the end of each of the five modules, there’s a 20-question quiz. On the actual substantive knowledge where the students have 30 minutes to be able to look up the textbook to get their answers as to what defamation is and that kind of stuff. But what I learnt through my reading around this kind of thing was that the learning is embedded more in that context if the students are presented with the same question again and so for the more important topics like defamation and contempt, those questions are geared to repeat in the later formative quizzes and the formative quizzes are non-assessable but the final one is worth 20 per cent of the assessment and is done in a single hit of 20 randomly generated questions from the others with no backtracking allowed.

Q:        The thing I like with what you’ve just done is that you’ve actually, in some ways, you’ve talked about your problems and then how you’ve set it out, in some ways you’re actually catering for that diversity of the learner too. …If they don’t want the audio, they can go to this to look at the problem or they’ve got that visual …

A:         Yeah and that’s something that’s been drilled home by our blended learning people through the various online development courses, is to try to cater to those different learning styles. And so while on the slide I’m saying they should do all of these things and always return to the learning problems, so preview the learning problem, come back to it later, engage in the tutorial discussion or discussions about it and find and reflect upon the recent readings. Because in media law there’s always new cases unfolding and stuff, people find and so we share that on our Twitter, #MLGriff Twitter feed, which is just a hashtag that people put on it. So this Rebel Wilson’s in the news, all the students are throwing that there. I tweet to that when I’m at seminars and things like that. And you know, it becomes almost like a really useful summary of media law because there are more than 400 students [per year] doing this course … and I’ve got them all integrated into the same program. OUA is a different site just because there’s just slightly different terminology and everything that they use.

Q:        Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

A:         So at any one time, through some of the activities such as the discussion board, you’ll get three of those four cohorts all there on the discussion board, discussing the learning problem or having general course questions or the tutors are engaging with them in their discussion about the answer.

Q:        Okay, so it’s practical – so I suppose what you’ve done is you’ve set up so it’s a practical, interactive course with reflection at the same time, which would then assist them in their development down the track with it, I suppose.

NEXT WEEK: A mindful dimension to the media law course


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 2017

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Filed under blogging, defamation, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

‘Mindful journalism’ – introducing a new ethical framework for reporting


This is an abridged version of the conference paper I presented to the Media, Religion and Culture division of the International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference, Dublin City University, on Saturday, June 29, 2013.


This paper explores the possibility of applying the fundamental precepts of one of the world’s major religions to the practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling in the modern era and asks whether that ethical framework is compatible with journalism as a Fourth Estate enterprise. It is not meant to be a theological exposition as I am neither a Buddhist nor an expert in Buddhist philosophy. That said, no academic paper topic like this arises in a vacuum, so I must first explain the personal and professional context from which this issue has arisen over four decades and has intensified in recent years. Most of my academic work has been in the field of media law – and its focus has been mainly upon the practical application of laws and regulations to the work of journalists. From time to time that ventures into media ethics and regulatory frameworks – the philosophical, self-regulatory and legislative frameworks that inform and relate to any examination of the actual laws impacting upon journalists.

Professional ethical codes are not religious treatises, and neither were holy scriptures spoken or written as codes of practice for any particular occupation. This paper attempts to do neither. Rather, it sets out to explore whether the foundational teachings of one religion focused upon living a purer life might inform journalism practice. At some junctures it becomes apparent that some elements of the libertarian model of journalism as we know it might not even be compatible with such principles – particularly if they are interpreted in their narrowest way. The teachings of other religions might also be applied in this way. When you look closely at Christianity (via the Bible), Islam (the Koran), Hinduism (the Bhagavad Gita), Judaism (the Torah) and throuth the Confucian canon you find common moral and ethical principles that we might reasonably expect journalists to follow in their work, including attributes of peace journalism identified by Lynch, (2010, p. 543): oriented towards peace, humanity, truth and solutions.  The 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. It is in that spirit that I explore the possibilities of applying some of Buddhism’s core principles to the secular phenomenon of journalism. It also must be accepted that Buddhist practices like ‘mindfulness’ and meditation have been adopted broadly in Western society in recent decades and have been accepted into the cognitive sciences, albeit in adapted therapeutic ways (Segal et. al, 2012).

We should educate journalists, serious bloggers and citizen journalists to 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.  The recent inquiries triggered by poor journalism ethical practices have demonstrated that journalism within the libertarian model appears to have lost its moral compass and we need to explore new ways to recapture this.

The Noble Eightfold Path attributed to the Buddha – Siddhartha Gautama (563 BCE to 483 BCE) – has been chosen here because of the personal reasons listed above, its relative brevity, and the fact that its core elements can be read at a secular level to relate to behavioural – and not exclusively spiritual – guidelines. Gunaratne (2005, p. 35) offered this succinct positioning of the Noble Eightfold Path (or the ‘middle way’) in Buddhist philosophy:

The Buddhist dharma meant the doctrine based on the Four Noble Truths: That suffering exists; that the cause of suffering is thirst, craving, or desire; that a path exists to end suffering; that the Noble Eightfold Path is the path to end suffering. Described as the “middle way,” it specifies the commitment to sila (right speech, action and livelihood), samadhi (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration), and panna (right understanding and thoughts).

It is also fruitful to explore journalism as a practice amidst the first two Noble Truths related to suffering (dukka), and this is possible because they are accommodated within the first step of the Eightfold Path – ‘right views’. The Fourth Noble Truth is also integrative. It states that the Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering. Here we consider its elements as a potential framework for the ethical practice of journalism in this new era.


Application of the Noble Eightfold Path to ethical journalism practice

Each of the constituent steps of the Noble 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 news and current affairs. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 39) identified a preliminary step to the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path that he saw as a precondition to its pursuit – the practice of ‘right association’. This, they explained, acknowledged the “extent to which we are social animals, influenced at every turn by the ‘companioned example’ of our associates, whose attitudes and values affect us profoundly” (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 40). For journalists this can apply at a number of levels. There is the selection of a suitable mentor, an ethical colleague who might be available to offer wise counsel in the midst of a workplace dilemma. There is also the need to acknowledge – and resist – the socialization of journalism recruits into the toxic culture of newsrooms with unethical practices (McDevitt et. al, 2002). Further, there is the imperative to reflect upon the potential for the ‘pack mentality’ of reportage that might allow for the combination of peer pressure, competition and poor leadership to influence the core morality of the newsgathering enterprise, as noted by Leveson (2012, p. 732) in his review of the ethical and legal transgressions by London newspaper personnel. Again, there is a great deal more that can be explored on this topic, but we will now concentrate on a journalistic reading of the steps of the Eightfold Path proper. Kalupahana (1976, p. 59) suggests its constituent eight factors represent a digest of “moral virtues together with the processes of concentration and the development of insight”.

1. Right views. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 42) explained that the very first step in the Eightfold Path involved an acceptance of the Four Noble Truths. Suffice it to say that much of what we call ‘news’ – particularly that impacting on audiences through its reportage of change, conflict and consequence – can sit with Smith and Novak’s (2003, p. 33) definition of dukka, namely “the pain that to some degree colors all of finite existence”. Their explanation of the First Noble Truth – that life is suffering – is evident when we view the front page of each morning’s newspaper and each evening’s television news bulletin:

The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth is this: Life (in the condition it has got itself into) is dislocated. Something has gone wrong. It is out of joint. As its pivot is not true, friction (interpersonal conflict) is excessive, movement (creativity) is blocked, and it hurts (Smith & Novak, 2003, p. 34).

This is at once an endorsement of accepted news values and a denial of the very concept of there being anything unusual about change. As Kalupahana (1976, p. 36) explains, a fundamental principle of Buddhism is that all things in the world are at once impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha) and nonsubstantial (anatta). 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. Yet given Buddhism’s premise that all things are subject to change at all times and that happiness is achieved through the acceptance of this, it might well erode the newsworthiness of the latest upsetting accounts of change in the world since we last looked. Yet in some ways this step supports the model of ‘deliberative journalism’ as explained by Romano (2010, p. 11), which encourages reports that are ‘incisive, comprehensive and balanced’, including the insights and contributions of all relevant stakeholders. Most importantly, as Romano suggests:

Journalists would also report on communities as they evaluate potential responses, and then investigate whether and how they have acted upon the resulting decisions (Romano, 2010, p. 11).

Thus, the notion of ‘right views’ can incorporate a contract between the news media and 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.

2. Right intent. The second ingredient relates to refining and acting upon that very ‘mission’, ‘calling’ or drive to ‘make a difference’ which is the very human motivation for selecting some occupations. For some, it is a religious calling where they feel spiritually drawn to a vocation as a priest, an imam, a rabbi or a monk. But for others it is a secular drive to aid humanity by helping change society in a positive way – a career motivation shared by many teachers, doctors and journalists. It becomes the backbone to one’s professional enterprise. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 42) describe it thus:

People who achieve greatness are almost invariably passionately invested in some one thing. They do a thousand things each day, but behind these stands the one thing they count supreme. When people seek liberation with single-mindedness of this order, they may expect their steps to turn from sliding sandbank scrambles into ground-gripping strides.

In journalism, this might necessitate 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, obtained ethically, and delivered as soon as possible 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 of ‘charitable expression’ could present a fundamental challenge to the very concept of journalism as we know it. It certainly places serious questions about the celebrity gossip orientation of many news products today. The notion of telling the truth and being accurate lies at the heart of journalism practice and is foremost in most ethical codes internationally. It is an unquestionable truth that, 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’. In defamation law, collections of provable facts can indeed create a meaning – known as an ‘imputation’ – that can indeed be damaging to someone’s reputation (Pearson & Polden, 2011, p.217). Thus, it becomes a question of which truths are selected to be told and the ultimate truth of their composite that becomes most relevant.

Smith and Novak (2003, p. 42) suggest falsities and uncharitable speech as indicative of other factors, most notably the ego of the communicator. In journalism, that ego might be fuelled in a host of ways that might encourage the selection of certain facts or the portrayal of an individual in a negative light: political agendas, feeding populist sentiment, peer pressure, and corporate reward. They state:

False witness, idle chatter, gossip, slander, and abuse are to be avoided, not only in their obvious forms, but also in their covert ones. The covert forms – subtle belittling, ‘accidental’ tactlessness, barbed wit – are often more vicious because their motives are veiled (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 42).

This calls into question the very essence of celebrity journalism for all the obvious reasons. Gossip about the private lives of the rich and famous, titillating facts about their private lives, and barbed commentary in social columns all fail the test of ‘right speech’ and, in their own way, reveal a great deal about the individual purveying them and their employer, discussed further below under ‘right livelihood’. Taken to its extreme, however, much news might be considered ‘uncharitable’ and slanderous about an individual when it is in fact revealing their wrongdoing all calling into question their public actions. If the Eightfold Path ruled out this element of journalism we would have to conclude it was incompatible even with the best of investigative and Fourth Estate journalism. Indeed, many uncomfortable truths must be told even if one is engaging in a form of ‘deliberative journalism’ that might ultimately be for the betterment of society and disenfranchised people. For example, experts in ‘peace journalism’ include a ‘truth orientiation’ as a fundamental ingredient of that approach, and include a determination “to expose self-serving pronouncements and representations on all sides” (Lynch, 2010, p. 543).

4. Right conduct. The fourth step of ‘right conduct’ goes to the core of any moral or ethical code. In fact, it contains the fundamental directives of most religions with its Five Precepts which prohibit killing, theft, lying, being unchaste and intoxicants (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 44). Many journalists would have problems with the final two, although the impact upon their work would of course vary with individual circumstances. And while many journalists might have joked that they would ‘kill’ for a story, murder is not a common or accepted journalistic tool. However, journalists have often had problems with the elements of theft and lying in their broad and narrow interpretations. The Leveson Report (2012) contains numerous examples of both, and the extension of the notion of ‘theft’ to practices like plagiarism and of ‘lying’ to deception in its many guises have fuelled many adverse adjudications by ethics committees and courts.

Importantly, as Smith and Novak (2003, p. 43) explain, the step of right conduct also involves ‘a call to understand one’s behavior more objectively before trying to improve it’ and ‘to reflect on actions with an eye to the motives that prompted them’. This clearly invokes the strategic approach developed by educationalist Donald Schön, whose research aimed to equip professionals with the ability to make crucial decisions in the midst of practice. Schön (1987, p. 26) coined the expression ‘reflection-in-action’ to describe the ability of the professional to reflect upon some problem in the midst of their daily work.  The approach was adapted to journalism by Sheridan Burns (2013) who advised student journalists:

You need a process for evaluating your decisions because a process, or system, lets you apply your values, loyalties and principles to every new set of circumstances or facts. In this way, your decision making will be fair in choosing the news (p. 76).

Even industry 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 (undated) 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 specific 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 Schön (1987, p. 26) called ‘reflection-in-action’. Such a technique might offer better guidance and might gain more traction if it were founded upon a socially and professionally acceptable moral or ethical scaffold, perhaps the kind of framework we are exploring here.

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. They included poison peddler, slave trader, prostitute, butcher, brewer, arms maker and tax collector (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 45). Some of these occupations might remain on his list today – but one can justifiably ask whether journalism would make his list in the aftermath of the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry (2012). That report did, of course, acknowledge the important role journalism should play in a democratic society, so perhaps the Buddha might have just nominated particular sectors of the media for condemnation. For example, the business model based upon celebrity gossip might provide an avenue for escape and relaxation for some consumers, but one has to wonder at the overall public good coming from such an enterprise. Given the very word ‘occupation’ implies work that ‘does indeed occupy most of our waking attention’ (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 44), we are left to wonder how the engagement in prying, intrusion and rumor-mongering for commercial purposes advances the enterprise of journalism or the personal integrity of an individual journalist who chooses to ply that trade. The same argument applies to the sections of larger media enterprises who might sometimes produce journalism of genuine social value, but on other occasions take a step too far with intrusion or gossip without any public benefit. This is where journalists working in such organisations might apply a mindful approach to individual stories and specific work practices to apply a moral gauge to the actual tasks they are performing in their work and in assessing whether they constitute ‘right living’.


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 journalism practice in a secular way. Early career journalists are driven to demonstrate success and sometimes mistake the hurried scoop and kudos of the lead story in their news outlet as an end in itself. There can also be an emphasis on productivity and output at the expense of the traditional hallmarks of quality reportage – attribution and verification. Of course, all news stories 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 from all reporters. Both can be achieved with continued attention to the core principle of purposeful reflection upon the ethics of the various daily work tasks and a mindful awareness of the underlying mission – or backbone – of one’s occupational enterprise – striving for the ‘right intent’ of the second step.

Institutional limitations and pressure from editors, reporters and sources will continually threaten a journalist’s commitment to this ethical core, requiring the ‘right effort’ to be maintained at that steady, considered pace through every interview, every story, every working day and ultimately through a full career. As the Dalai Lama wrote in Beyond Religion (2011, p. 142):

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.

Surely this is a useful attribute for the journalist.

7. Right mindfulness. This is the technique of self-examination that Schön (1987) and Sheridan Burns (2013) might call ‘reflection in action’ and is the step I have selected as central to an application of the Eightfold Path to reportage in the heading for this article – ‘Mindful Journalism’. Effective reflection upon one’s own thoughts and emotions is crucial to a considered review of an ethical dilemma in a newsgathering or publishing context. It is also essential to have gone through such a process if a journalist is 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, the ego of an individual journalist or the commercial imperative of a media employer. Again, the Leveson Report (2012) detailed numerous instances where such forces were at play, often to the great detriment to the lives of ordinary citizens.

As Smith and Novak (2003, p. 48) explain, right mindfulness ‘aims at witnessing all mental and physical events, including our emotions, without reacting to them, neither condemning some nor holding on to others’. Buddhists (and many others) adopt mindfulness techniques in the form of meditation practice – sometimes in extended guided retreats. While I have found this practice useful in my own life, I am by no means suggesting journalists adopt the lotus position to meditate in their newsrooms or at the scene of a breaking news event 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 from journalists adopting the lay meaning of ‘being mindful’. In other words, journalists might pause briefly for reflection upon the implications of their actions upon others – the people who are the subjects of their stories, other stakeholders who might be affected by the event or issue at hand, the effects upon their own reputations as journalists and the community standing of others, and the public benefits ensuing from this particular truth being told in this way at this time. Most ethical textbooks have flow charts with guidelines for journalists to follow in such situations – but the central question is whether they have an embedded technique for moral self-examination – a practiced mindfulness they can draw upon when a circumstance demands.

There is a special need for journalists to be mindful of the vulnerabilities of some individuals they encounter in their work. Many have studied the interaction between the news media and particular ‘vulnerable groups’, such as people with a disability, those with a mental illness, children, the indigenous, the aged, or those who have undergone a traumatic experience. Our collaborative Australian Research Council Linkage Project on ‘Vulnerability and the News Media’ (Pearson et. al, 2010) reviewed that research and examined how journalists interacted with those who might belong to such a ‘vulnerable group’ or who might simply be ‘vulnerable’ because of the circumstances of the news event. We identified other types of sources who might be vulnerable in the midst or aftermath of a news event involving such a ‘moment of vulnerability’ and assessed the question of ‘informed consent’ to journalistic interviews by such individuals. Ethical journalists are mindful of such potential vulnerabilities and either look for alternative sources or take considered steps to minimise the impact of their reportage.

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 has explained that it is often mistaken for a weakness or passivity, or ‘surrender in the face of wrongdoing or injustice’ (Dalai Lama, 2011, p. 58). If that were the case, then it would be incompatible with Fourth Estate journalism which requires reporters to call to account those who abuse power or rort the system. However, the Dalai Lama explains that true compassion for others requires that sometimes we must do exactly that:

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).

Such an approach is perfectly compatible with the best of foreign correspondence and investigative journalism conducted in the public interest – and is well accommodated within the peace journalism model explained by Lynch (2010, p. 543).

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. Smith and Novak (2003, p. 48) explain that concentration exercises – often attentive to a single-pointed awareness of breathing – are a common prelude to mindfulness exercises during meditation.

Initial attempts at concentration are inevitably shredded by distractions; slowly, however, attention becomes sharper, more stable, more sustained (Smith and Novak, 2003, p. 48).

It is such concentrated attention that is required of consummate professionals in the midst of covering a major news event. It is at this time that top journalists 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 – 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 frantic newsroom or a chaotic news event.

Towards a secular ‘mindful journalism’

This paper does not propose a definitive fix-all solution to the shortcomings in journalism ethics or their regulation. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that the basic teachings of one of the world’s major religions can offer guidance in identifying a common – and secular – moral compass that might inform our journalism practice as technology and globalization place our old ethical models under stress.

Leveson (2012) has identified the key ethical and regulatory challenges facing the British press and Finkelstein (2012) has documented the situation in Australia. One of the problems with emerging citizen journalism and news websites is that their proponents do not necessarily ascribe to traditional journalists’ ethical codes. The journalists’ union in Australia, the Media Alliance, has attempted to bring them into its fold by developing a special “Charter of Excellence and Ethics” and by the end of April already had 12 news websites ascribe to its principles, which included a commitment to the journalists’ Code of Ethics (Alcorn, 2013). This might be a viable solution for those who identify as journalists and seek a union affiliation, but many do not, and in a global and multicultural publishing environment the challenge is to develop models that might be embraced more broadly than a particular national union’s repackaging of a journalists’ code.

I have written previously about the confusion surrounding the litany of ethical codes applying to a single journalist in a single workplace. There is evidence that in many places such codes have failed to work effectively in guiding the ethics of the traditional journalists for whom they were designed, let alone the litany of new hybrids including citizen journalists, bloggers, and the avid users of other emerging news platforms.

My suggestion here is simply that core human moral principles from key religious teachings like the Noble Eightfold Path could form the basis of a more relevant and broadly applicable model for the practice of ‘mindful journalism’.


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Note: The author acknowledges funding from the Australian Research Council for funding the collaborative ARC Linkage Project LP0989758 (researchers from five universities led by Professor Kerry Green from the University of South Australia) which contributed to this study and to the Griffith University Arts, Education and Law Group for funding to present this paper.

© Mark Pearson 2013

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.


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