The protagonists of Spotlight. From crosscut.com
The new and critically acclaimed cinematic drama Spotlight tells the story of the team of investigative journalists that exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of more than 70 child-abusing priests in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2002. It is one of the few movies in recent memory in which we see the press portrayed in a positive light. Even in the most acclaimed of films that show journalists at their most charismatic, they are still cast as acutely imperfect people (which is not an inaccurate charge!). Take the celebrated La Dolce Vita (1960), in which celebrity gossip columnist Marcello Rubini embodies self-indulgence, excess, and emotional rootlessness. In 2046, the 2004 sequel to the Hong Kong cinema classic In the Mood for Love (2000), news writer Chow Wo-man changes from a gentleman refusing to cheat on his unfaithful wife into a promiscuous and emotionally abusive hack.
The ambiguity with which journalists are portrayed in pop culture existed long before the widespread collapse of trust in mainstream media that occurred more than a decade ago in the West. As the Internet took off in the 2000s and social media transformed the way the world communicates, a large segment of the public began to turn away from “official” media outlets such as newspapers and TV stations, turning instead to information websites, YouTube channels, and other alternative online news sources. Some point the finger of blame at the digital revolution while others feel that traditional media is itself culpable for not reflecting the interests of younger and more diverse audiences.
Much of mainstream American reportage of the reasons and necessity for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which most now decry as disingenuous and misleading, inflicted catastrophic damage on the public’s perception of press integrity. The phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry in Britain from 2011–12 (which exposed a culture of bullying, misconduct, and greed at the heart of the now-defunct tabloid News of the World) only served to fuel public cynicism towards the press. By contrast, at “Mindful Communication for ASEAN Integration,” a conference held in Bangkok from 14–15 December last year, policymakers, journalists, and academics were united in agreeing that these problems could be traced to the single root cause of moral deterioration in the mass media. Moral deterioration is not only a blunter diagnosis than technological advance, but one that has concordance with Buddhist thought.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh well appreciates the power of journalism: after all, he bore witness to the Vietnam War, which was waged with images and narratives as well as napalm and Agent Orange. In his book, True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, he wrote: “If you are a journalist, a teacher, or a filmmaker you should practice mindfulness—for the sake of your own calm and your own happiness, but also for that of other people as well. Because we need your calm, your compassion, your understanding” (Thich Nhat Hanh 2006, 93). This advice follows on from his more general teachings about mindful practice in relation to the family, people in general, and the environment.
Marcello Mastroianni as Marcello Rubini with actress Anita Ekberg in the famous fountain scene in La Dolce Vita. From alchetron.com
In other words, Thich Nhat Hanh feels that journalists owe it to their readers and themselves to meditate. In his view, reacting immediately to an event or to information received is far from ideal. While journalists are supposed to keep an ethical distance from the subjects they report on, this ideal can hardly be met when they are required to build a narrative in favor of or against a story almost as soon as it breaks. Media coverage would be much more beneficial if it was informed by compassion and wisdom. One could imagine that a “skillful” journalist, as framed by the Buddhist ideals expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh, would be quite different in temperament and moral outlook to the typical reporter.
The objective of “Mindful Communication for ASEAN Integration” was to debate the feasibility of alternative models of media to the prevailing Western paradigm. Many felt that the latter, while playing an important role, was incomplete in an ethical sense. Delegates discussed how different models of journalism could not only suit the cultures and sensibilities of Asian countries, but also be guided in a more moral, even Buddhist, direction.
One model with a great deal of potential is so-called “restorative” journalism. In 2013, the organization Images and Voices of Hope presented a concept of restorative journalism that “shows how people and communities are learning to rebuild and recover after experiencing difficult times. While these narratives are often about restoration after a tragedy, they can also focus on restoration in the midst of chronic situations.” At this presentation, Journalism professor Jon Funabiki said that restorative journalism was “not so broad-brush” in comparison to tabloid reporting, “authentic,” and “leading to positive outcomes,” and that it had purpose and intent. Restorative journalism could not be “happy and misleading,” have an “exclusive focus on the negative,” or lead to despair.
Dorji Wangchuck, dean of external relations and development at Royal Thimphu College, gave an example of restorative writing in relation to the sinking of the Korean ferry MV Sewol on 16 April 2014, a disaster in which 304 people died. The reaction of the majority of the South Korean press was to immediately lay the blame at the feet of the owner of the company that operated the vessel and the government, with suspicions of negligence or bribery. He suggested that while holding public officials or businesspeople accountable was acceptable for a “pugilistic” or rambunctious press, restorative journalists would instead focus on news of how the major Buddhist institutions of the country came together in a prayer ceremony to comfort the dead and grieving.
Tony Leung's character Chow Wo-man in 2046. From www.filmhubni.org
The media, as a form of mass communication, plays a major role in shaping societal consciousness, and since Buddhism has a stake in expressing its teachings to as large an audience as possible, the debate over how to create media is one in which Buddhism can actively participate. The press affects Buddhists, so how can Buddhists make their own contributions to the media and shape it in turn? While restorative reporting is a worthy starting point, perhaps the way forward would be to integrate the meditative mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh’s ideal journalist and those positive traits traditionally ascribed to the profession that make a triumphant return in Spotlight: a hunger for accountability, sympathy for the voiceless, and critical thinking.
It is interesting that certain fields, such as nursing or chaplaincy, are inherently associated with kindness, tenderness, and understanding. Yet these are terms rarely used to describe journalists in the mass media. People would greatly benefit if journalistic integrity were informed by Buddhist values, whether through restorative reporting or a hybrid thereof, but the initiative needs to come from Buddhists who want to see this change. Media organizations and culture take a long time to change, and the skillful journalist needs to be proactive in making that shift.