Among many moral traditions concerning ethical speech, one that commends itself especially to a practical application to modern journalistic practice, is the Buddhist doctrine of Right Speech. There are several reasons for this.
First, the doctrine of Right Speech is embedded in a universal moral system that is grounded, vis a vis the individual practitioner, in rigorous empirical observation and not in blind faith. This is true notwithstanding the mistaken popular view that the Buddha came to Earth as a divine figure or prophet similar to Jesus or Mohammed. To the contrary, the Buddha insisted throughout his life that he was a mere mortal, just a man, albeit one who'd spent significant time observing, very much as a scientist would, the essential nature of his body and mind.
That many modern scientists have declared Buddhism to be the one world religion most compatible with the scientific outlook and method, is natural considering the Buddha's frequent and explicit instructions that none of his followers should accept the assertions made by authority figures, including him, until they had witnessed or experienced something personally themselves. It's an injunction that echoes roundly in ageless journalistic adages such as the one that journalists should ''love their mothers but check her quotes.'' Doubt and skepticism are the foundation of both journalistic and Buddhist investigation.
Second, the Buddhist method of inquiry takes no strong interest in either the past or the future, instructing adepts instead to focus completely on experiencing the present moment. Similarly, journalism, among all literary genres, focuses most strongly on the present. That part of journalism called ''the news,'' especially, is focused on the present, that is giving readers accurate and useful reports on the present conditions of public life. History takes on the past, and science fiction and novels can explore future scenarios, but journalism alone stakes the present as its ground for investigation. And investigation is the word.
Journalism like Buddhism is really a method for exploring the depths of the present, and both disciplines describe, in their user manuals, various methods for ensuring that an individual investigator stays focused on that precise task. These methods, again both in journalism and Buddhism, attempt to heighten and individual's sensitivity to signals from the here and now, while dampening receptivity to such distracting and distorting influences as outdated societal narratives, group anxieties and fears, or political and commercial propaganda. To use the popular Buddhist formulation, both a Buddhist meditator and a journalist conduct rigorous objective investigations into ''the way things are now.''
Third, both Buddhism and journalism, properly understood, are methods of investigation aimed at producing transformative insight. It is not to achieve any special state of relaxation or bliss that Buddhist meditation ultimately is practiced. Rather, it is to create conditions in which a meditator can achieve insights into reality that are strong enough to change him. Even that change itself, freedom from ignorance allowing individuals to fully flower, is naturally mappable from a Buddhist to a liberal democratic civil setting.
It is a powerful if subtle point: the goal of Buddhist meditation and journalism is to produce transformative insight. The assumption in both cases is that only insight into the real, inherently transform. It can not help but transform, because reality seen truly is reality that at last is susceptible to easeful human life. The humans who finally see the path of the real -- which is the only path not littered with obstructive imaginary monsters -- will have no interest in continuing any other way.
At their best, journalists carry out their work based on a similar theory, namely that by illuminating the way things are now in society, they help to create conditions in which wise, fair, and grounded decisions for democracy can be made by the public. Only in one way do the two theories of insight, the Buddhist and the journalistic, significantly diverge. That is, because Buddhism addresses the absolute world of the present, insight into that world is sufficient by itself, to create liberating freedom.
But journalism, an investigation into the present relative as opposed to absolute world, creates insight that is necessary but not by itself sufficient to engender transformative change. Too many other factors are at work to assure such transformation in the relative world.
A Buddhist meditator is an individual working for insights or light that, once gained, illuminates the chambers of the self that made the investigation. And from there, the self is perforce transformed.
But in the relative world, the light gained by investigative journalism encounters many obstacles to its full spreading, not only that obstruct passage of experience from the mind of one writer to one reader in all the usual ways, but also from the mind of one writers to possibly millions of readers, all of whom are simultaneously being bombarded by competing notions and theories of insight, some of which of course are no more than political or commercial propaganda, or worse. Still, the point is, both the meditator and the journalist work to gain insight that they hope will transform human beings, themselves and others.
So the overall world view of the journalist and the Buddhist, both being aimed at gaining transformative insight through skeptical investigation into the present, are inherently compatible. Yet between the two, Buddhist ethics are both more profoundly rooted in human experience and extensive into the world. Two and a half millenia of development on the part of Buddhism, versus a couple of centuries for journalism, is one reason for this; so is the fact that the Buddha taught for the explicit purpose of reducing human suffering, which historically has been only one among many ultimate purposes of journalism over the years, and frequently among the lesser ones.
This is not to try to develop an argument that journalism is in any way flawed because it doesn't try to change men's souls. It's not about that; it's by definition more limited than that; and it's proper that it should be. Rather, it's important to describe the compatibility of Buddhism and journalism, and then to point out Buddhism's greater moral depth, because Buddhism by its nature offers a universal framework for moral decision-making that offers a great many answers, or at least a great many clear paths to answers, to difficulties that increasingly bedevil journalism and the news media today.
What is the basic role of a journalist in society? Is it to entertain, to inform, or to persuade? If some of all the above, what are the right proportions, and under what conditions might those proportions ethically change? An offhand remark from a mother to a daughter can wound both parties for a lifetime; in the same way, a single line of reportage can ruin a reputation not just of an individual but an entire community over a similar time span. Widespread caricatures in the global media can condemn an entire country to scorn and oblivion for decades.
How are individual journalists to work under such circumstances? How are readers or consumers of the news media to understand what they read or see; how much weight are they to give it; and what checks should there be, not only at a policy or social practice level, but at the individual level, to ensure that journalistic speech is healthfully and responsibly imbibed? Journalism's professional ethical code is silent on such questions, and only reference to a deeper moral system in which journalistic ethics are embedded, can begin to offer a useful way to answer them.