Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Buddhist approach to journalistic responsibility

 by Minh Duc Luong
In the book The elements of journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel clarify journalists’ obligation to the truth as the first and most ‘confusing’ principle in journalism. “[E]very one agrees journalists must tell the truth, yet people are befuddled about what ‘the truth’ means.” (2007, p. 36). Truth is the fundamental element for journalists to be responsible to society. There are many western philosophical approaches defining the concept of ‘truth’ which are relevant to the role of journalists in society; among them is Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill. These discussions of ‘truth’ result in an argument about the self of the journalist and as a result, leave equivocal conclusions about the way journalists should act in society. However, Buddhist philosophy has another approach to ‘truth’ with a methodology of behaviour that would be relevant to a discussion of the concept of journalistic responsibility. This essay thus first gives an overview of the utilitarian approach and argues the problems of this theory in explaining the responsibility of the journalist in society. Secondly, it examines the fundamental concept of the “Four Noble Truths” in Buddhist philosophy in an attempt to clarify the questions remaining unanswered regarding journalistic obligations. Case studies will be used for practical examples.
Utilitarian approach and argument
In his famous work On Liberty (1975), Mill indicates the need for freedom of speech to recognise ‘truth’. He argues that as people’s beliefs cannot be absolutely certain, they might be erroneous. “Only by allowing expression of the opinion we think false do we allow for the possibility that that opinion may be true” (cited in Schauer, 1982, p. 22). This means that only increased knowledge through absolute open discussion – or absolute freedom of speech – could correct the fallibility of the human mind and subsequently define the truth. The idea of objective truth and absolute free speech makes it possible for Mill to assert another concept of utilitarian ethics which evaluates an action through its consequences. Mill and other utilitarian philosophers claim that an act is ethical if it provides the greatest possible good for the greatest number and “the best ethical decision illustrates the right choice” (Beauchamp, 1982; Mill, 1975). These arguments can define the two key concepts in journalistic responsibility: (1) searching truth with an absolute right to tell the truth; and (2) by telling the truth, journalists serve the interest of the majority.
However, Mill’s standpoint of the absolutism inherent in free discussion has been criticized by those who deny the concept of ‘objective truth’. Schauer (1982) argues that if people are always uncertain, then they never know if the truth has been identified. This means that even journalists, with an obligation to the truth, would not be certain if what they are telling is exactly true. The point is that Mill assumes “the search for truth is superior to any other social interest” (Schauer, 1982, p. 23) and his theory could support the fallibility or unsound opinions of journalists as part of the truth-seeking process. Schauer also indicates that often an “expression of unsound opinions [which] causes greater harm than the expression of sound opinions” (1982, p. 28). Mill, of course, is aware of the possible unpleasant consequences of free expression but believes it can deliver the greatest good for the greatest number (Warnock & Mill, 2008). Yet it is impossible quantify the ‘greatest good’ and the ‘greatest number’, as journalists are unable to quantify the scope of the interest of the majority. Barendt (1987) argues that mass communication does not attempt to separate a particular group of people from the general public. Freedom of discussion should be in the frame of either the right of individuals to receive information, or in relation to public interest in the disclosure of such information. Speech may be limited to protect the public interest, national security or a private right. Take the example of WikiLeaks publishing ‘top national secrets’. The question in this case is who do these documents benefit, and who do they harm? Julian Assange states that his behabiour is based on the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing. This improves transparency and thus creates a better society for all people (WikiLeaks). However, by disclosing confidential national documents, WikiLeaks has also threatened national security (Hilary Clinton, quoted in Moore, 2010). When national security is in danger, the national interest, including citizens’ interest, might be in danger. It is hard to clarify the ‘greater good’ or ‘greater number’ between those who may benefit from or be harmed by the documents made public. The consequences, after all, depend on the way Julian Assange and his colleagues identify their responsibility to the society.
The problem of utilitarian theory is that it assumes objective truths that people need to find and free speech as a fundamental condition for people to express the discovery of ‘truth’. However, instead of clarifying what is exactly the truth, Mill argues that truth needs to be found as the belief in a particular truth might be false. This, by extension, would cause a dilemma for journalists finding the truth when they are unaware of what the truth is. This might be also the reason for the lust for truth without concern for its possible harmful consequences. This could even lead to the understanding that telling the truth means disclosing the failures of others. Another problem in utilitarian theory is that it overvalues the ability of people to make ethical decisions. Similarly, Kant believes that ethical people do not need to concern themselves with their action’s consequences because that action is the right thing to do, and telling the truth and being honest are societally agreed upon behaviours (Kant, cited in Beauchamp, 1982). According to McGill, these western philosophers attempt to ascribe superhuman powers to ordinary people. The question is how an ordinary journalist could tell any truth and ensure that it results in ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ (2008).
Buddhist approach
Buddhist philosophy has another methodology for approaching truth. It defines four truths about human existence, called the Four Noble Truths: the existence of suffering (dukkha), the cause of suffering, the possibility of ceasing suffering, and the way to end suffering.
According to Kalupahana (1992), these concepts of ‘truth’ are not in the ordinary sense of the word, namely, truths that are distinguished from untruths or falsehood, as in the approach of western philosophers. Rather, ‘truth’ in Buddha’s theory presents a psychological concept that he calls ‘noble truths’, not epistemological or rational truths. ‘Truth’ is suffering. “The conception of ‘nobility’ involves a value judgment. Value is not decided in terms of higher or lower, as the term ‘noble’ sometimes signifies; instead, it implies relevance or worth” (1992, p. 85). In other words, the four truths in Buddhist philosophy do not present pleasant consequences to be found out, but ‘samsara’[1] – a cycle of ‘suffering’ to the end of ‘suffering’. Given such a difference, the concept of the Four Noble Truths provides another explanation for the responsibility of journalists and the way they should act in society.
Concerning the first truth, ‘suffering’, Buddha identifies the three dialectical characteristics of existence: impermanence (annica), selflessness (anatta) and suffering (dukkha). Impermanence does not mean momentariness, it is ‘arising and passing away’, or ‘birth and destruction’ (Kalupahana, 1976). Since everything is impermanent, there cannot be and unchanging self. This point is different from the major western ethical implications of ‘self’. Thich Nhat Hanh, an Engaged Buddhist, points out this difference by stating that “[i]n the West, people have impression that their body belongs to them, that they can do anything they want to their body… And the law supports them. This is individualism”. Societies with “less sense of individualism, with less sense of a separate and independent self, will be organised differently… Privacy will be less of an issue, and there will be a greater sense of obligation to kin and community” (cited in King, 2005, p. 91). Buddha and his followers argue that belief in permanence often leads to selfishness and egocentrism. Ignoring the notion of ‘self’, Buddha focuses on ‘suffering’:
“Birth is suffering; old age is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, and dejection are suffering. Contact with what is unpleasant and separation from the pleasant are suffering… In brief, clinging to the five aggregates of the personality – body, feeling, perception, disposition, and consciousness – as possessions of ‘my self’ is suffering.” (Buddha, cited in Kalupahana, 1992, p. 86).
The concept of ‘suffering’ can be misunderstood as people might think birth, old age, sickness, death, and everything existed are themselves suffering. Subsequently, there is no point in eliminating pain. Buddhadasa, another Engaged Buddhist, handles this matter by clarifying that only when there is clinging to ‘self’ do birth, old age, sickness, death, and so on become ‘suffering’. With a pure body and mind, there is no suffering at all (cited in King, 2005, p. 18). This is important to explain the second and third truths. Suffering arises from attachment to desire but there is also the possibility to cease suffering when attachment to desire ceases (Gunaratne, 2009).
Applying these first truths in the Buddhist doctrine to journalism, McGill (2008) suggests the concept of ‘a journalism of healing’, in which journalists are aware of suffering in society and act in an attempt to end suffering. Their responsibility would thus be to help individuals and society heal the pains caused by injustice, hatred, racism, ostracism, and violence. It means that instead of asking the question of what is the truth and to what purpose the truth is told, Buddhist journalists should measure every word and story they produce with the question of whether it help cease individual and social suffering.

This photo was taken by Kevin Carter and 
won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 (
Take example of the famous case of Kevin Carter who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 with a photograph taken during the Sudan famine. This picture described a starving Sudanese child crawling towards a United Nations camp to get food, and a vulture waiting for the child to die so that it could eat her; and it shocked the world. The controversial issue raised after this photograph was published is that no one knew what had happened to the child, even Carter, who left the place as soon as the photo was taken. Cater was blamed for his so-called ‘unethical’ behaviour (MacLeod, 1994). Unfortunately, Carter committed suicide just three month after the Prize due to depression so no one could know what he thought in the moment the photograph was taken. MacLeod indicates in an article that after taking the picture, Carter “chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle” (1994, p. 3). The point, nevertheless, is that Carter did not know what happened to the child afterward and this has hurt the audience. It could be argued that Carter’s desire for the truth in Sudan and telling this truth to public opinion resulted in his ignoring the child’s fate. He, of course, might be aware of the child’s suffering and unable to protect her from death; however, if he was aware of the way to cease suffering, he could have acted. His action could be to help, ask others for help or even simply get information to ensure that he knew the child’s suffering and tried his best to help the child. His ‘unknown’ behaviour thus continuously caused suffering for those who had seen his photograph, and himself. This could have put his life to an end. MacLeod also describes Carter’s depression in his article: “Afterward he sat under the tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried... According to friends, Carter began talking openly about suicide” (1994, pp. 3, 5).
That is what Buddha did not wish to happen to his followers. Carter’s death is not the way to end suffering as it could influence the state of mind of other journalists who would face such circumstances. Following Buddhist philosophy, suffering presents the object of journalism and Buddhist journalists should take the responsibility to cease suffering. Logically, they first need to know how to end their own suffering. This argument refers to the fourth Noble Truth. According to Mc Gill, “Buddhism is often not clarified as a religion because it teaches no theology, declares no divinity, and requires no faith (2008). The way to end suffering is a practical process achieved through the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’, including three areas for practice (Bodhi, 1994, p. 14):

Wisdom – (1) right understanding and (2) right intention
Ethical conduct – (3) right speech, (4) right action, and (5) right livelihood
Meditation – (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right meditation[2]
It would be interesting to apply these concepts to explain the way journalists should be responsible to society. The very first moral action of the journalists is speech and ‘right speech’ must follow the achievement of wisdom, consisting of understanding and intention. ‘Right speech’ is then followed by ‘right action’ and ‘right livelihood’. In other words, ‘right speech’ means “timely, truthful, helpful, and spoken with a mind of good will” (McGill, 2008). The Noble Eightfold Path is not a constant frame. It presents a productive process of practice. This Buddhist approach puts ethical principles into practice.
Reviewing the first case in this essay, there may be an argument that WikiLeaks publishing top confidential documents is a ‘right action’ since it resulted from a ‘right speech’ of ‘enhancing transparency and democracy’ (WikiLeaks). However, WikiLeaks’ action would also result in stricter measures from the US government to protect information. In a way, WikiLeaks probably paves the way for new barrier protecting information. On international level, assuming that the information published would cause tension between countries, the people in those affected countries may suffer. In that case, WikiLeaks’ speech would be no longer the ‘right speech’. Instead of clinging to an absolute freedom of speech, considering possible suffering would make it possible for WikiLeaks to adjust the limitation of what should be published, to ensure no other suffering could be arisen.
In conclusion, this essay does not attempt to disclaim the western approach to identify the responsibility of journalists. Instead of approaching ‘truth’ in the normal concept as the object for journalist to target, it approaches ‘truth’ from the perspective of Buddhist theory. As a result, it clarifies that ‘suffering’ presents the nature of ‘truth’; and the responsibility of journalists is to cease individual and social suffering. Moreover, this understanding provides methodology to clarify the way journalists should act in order to be responsible to society, in other words, it equips journalists with both the understanding and the method for making ethical decisions.

WikiLeaks. What is Wikileaks?  Retrieved 18 August, 2011, from

[1] In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, the ‘bondage of life, death, and rebirth’: the cycle of birth and rebirth dictated by karma – cause and effect as it applies to human action and its consequences. Release comes only with the attainment of true knowledge, requiring austere discipline (Blackburn, 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2011, from Oxford University Press
[2] These eight elements do not present the objective standards to apply. Indeed, they are dialectically productive within a wheel of ‘nature and the laws of nature’ – or Dhamma (King, 2005)

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