By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report
MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – There is an old interviewing trick journalists use to get people to say things far more intimate than they planned to reveal.
The trick works when the journalist, instead of asking a follow-up question during the silence that follows an answer, instead stays silent. The compulsion to fill conversational vacuums is so powerful that people often blab intimacies they didn't mean to share.
That interviewing ploy is one of many ethical shortcuts I used as a reporter and editor in the mainstream press for more than twenty years, first as a reporter for The New York Times, and then later as a bureau chief for Bloomberg News in London and Hong Kong.
As the years passed, I cut more and more ethical corners as a journalist to get exclusive stories, to elicit juicy anecdotes and quotes, and to get my stories the best possible play on the newswire or in the newspaper – preferably on page one.
I became a serial exaggerator of social trends. Increasingly, I started defining every trend as “new and important,” “widespread,” or “emblematic.”
My writing vocabulary was getting showy and meretricious (and a Happy New Year!), and I began avoiding humble but specific, useful words.
I got hooked on such verbal journalistic steroids as “unprecedented,” “in a dramatic new development,” “revolutionary,” and “raises new and troubling questions.” I felt sheepish, hangdog and worse. But I kept using.
Sometime I'd get to the part of the story where I needed to type in these phrases, and I'd literally feel sick.
Was I really going to do this again, I'd ask myself?
Usually, I would. Because when I injected these particular words my stories and -- most important -- my byline shot straight onto the front page.
And that felt oh, so good. But where was the end to these addictions?
Of course, deeper ethical issues face the modern global journalist, language-wise.
The world is filled with violent words and actions that journalists must sometimes, of necessity, report. Sugar-coating reality would be an ethical lapse equal or even greater than occasionally exaggerating social trends.
The world is filled with realities so extreme they are literally beyond the reach of language, used at its most extreme, to accurately describe. But even straight and well-intentioned reporting of such violence, incendiary language, and extreme reality can kick the cycle of violence to even more violent rounds.
What morals should guide a journalist's professional purpose, reporting methods, and use of language in such a world?
In recent years, Buddhism’s doctrines on life’s purpose, human suffering, and ethical speech have seemed to me to suggest – as no other moral system I have yet found -- practical answers to such questions facing a global media.
There is a spiritual side to Buddhism, it’s true. But its most appealing trait to me from the beginning has been its straightforward and empirically-based morals. It asks not a speck of faith from anyone. Yet it offers a comprehensive and practical human morals of which speech is an integral part.
In this way, Buddhism seems tailor-made for journalism’s ethical, and increasingly global and multicultural, needs.
Indeed, in its relentless quest to observe without filter or distortion the nature of daily human existence -- the fact and flavor of the simple ordinary present, the living now -- Buddhism seems, in a certain way, quintessentially journalistic.
In my early years as a journalist, I was happy to discover the world through journalism. My youthful curiosity and optimism carried me through those years.
My drive to explore the world more widely (if not more deeply) trumped the ethical questions that always tagged behind.
It’s only natural, I suppose, that with age the question of one’s purpose looms larger. You’ve only got so many days in life, and so many chances to direct one’s attention with positive intention and purpose.
For a few years, I searched for an ethical system within the profession, or even from another profession, that addressed these concerns. Basically, I got nowhere. I found out that journalists don’t like to talk about the moral basis of what they do, which is to use language. They are practically allergic to such a thing. That's got to change if journalism is going to evolve ethically and globally.
Journalism's moral obtuseness is enshrined in its ethics codes.
The specific injunctions of these guides to newsroom practice – not to plagiarize, not to lie get a story, not to cause anyone harm, etc. – are nowhere connected to any fundamental vision of human existence or morals.
That may sound like too grand a hope for journalism, but medical and legal ethics are grounded in this way. Why not journalism and the media?
Kant and Mill
By now, surely, the enormous impact of the media on global affairs is obvious enough to warrant thinking more seriously about media morals, beginning with the morals of journalism, which is the public service branch of the media.
Journalists wishing to go deeper ethically than their profession allows, as I did on my quest, traditionally look to Enlightenment philosophers for enlightenment.
In particular, ethics courses at communication schools teach the “utilitarian” ethics of John Stuart Mill, and the “duty-based” ethics of Immanuel Kant.
Mill's utilitarian ethic calls for examining each case to determine if the greatest good is achieved for the greatest number. The Kantian ethic, by contrast, asks people to question if a given action would help or harm society if it was repeated by everyone. Could it be “universalized” to society’s benefit?
These approaches have great appeal because they define communication ethics as a matter of general human morals, and not of daily expedience.
And yet, how impractical Mill and Kant are!
Enlightenment philosophers, I discovered, ascribe superhuman powers to ordinary people. Can any single person reasonably guess, with any degree of accuracy, whether a given act of speech will result in “the greatest good for the greatest number”? Or whether it could be “universalized without harm?”
Since when could any being but a God do such a thing? Neither the morals of Mill nor of Kant are easily translated, in practical terms, to individuals facing daily life situations, much less to hyperactive, competitive newsrooms.
It was in Buddhism that I finally found an explicit and practical morals of human communication. Since I discovered its doctrines a few years ago, my ethics thinking has centered around the question whether it might be possible to develop a new journalism based on such universal yet practical principles.
A journalism grounded in Buddhist morals would display two salient traits derived from its moral purpose and methods. Such a journalism would be:
- A journalism of healing. Buddhism is often not classified as a religion because it teaches no theology, declares no divinity, and requires no faith. Instead, its doctrines revolve entirely around the achievement of a practical goal: “the end of suffering.” Nor is the definition of suffering complex or esoteric. It is ordinary everyday suffering, aches and pains, mental moods and afflictions, sickness and death. On a social level, suffering in Buddhism is defined as any harshness, violence, and division of the community. A Buddhist journalism would therefore be aimed at helping individuals overcome their personal sufferings, and helping society heal the wounds caused by injustice, hatred, ostracism, and physical violence. Such a defined professional purpose would give the Buddhist journalist a measuring stick for each word and story produced: does it help overcome individual and social suffering?
- A journalism of timely, truthful, helpful speech. A Buddhist journalism would need tools and materials adequate to its healing purpose. The Buddhist “Right Speech” doctrine provides many of them. Right Speech sits midway along the “Noble Eightfold Path,” the Buddha’s prescribed method to reach the end of suffering. The midway place of Right Speech along the Noble Eightfold Path is interesting, because speech is the first action to follow the gaining of wisdom and positive intention, as developed in mediation. By this view, speech is a person's very first chance to act morally in the world. It is followed then in the Noble Eightfold Path by “Right Action” and “Right Livelihood.” Also, very helpfully for journalists, the identifying traits of Right Speech are specifically defined as “timely, truthful, helpful, and spoken with a mind of good will.” Likewise, the five main types of speech to avoid are lies, divisive speech, harsh and abusive speech, and idle and distracting speech.
Can a new global journalism of healing be practiced that embraces timely, truthful and helpful speech, and avoids the five destructive modes?