How about a few minutes of meditation to kick off your next newsroom meeting?
It’s a frequent practice at News Deeply, a New York-based startup that focuses on comprehensive coverage of complex issues that are widely overhyped and misunderstood, such as Syria, refugees, oceans, and water.
Under such a “huge cognitive load,” says Lara Setrakian, the CEO and co-founder, “[mindfulness practice] has been a huge practical boost for us. I’ve also seen it really shape our decision-making as an organization.”
Journalism’s institutions are late to adopt mindfulness, a practice of developing an awareness of our thoughts (often through meditation) that at its best can make us more reflective, more empathic, and less reactive. Already well integrated into many established organizations and corporations, including Aetna, Target, Google, and the World Bank, to name a few, it has been shown to reduce stress, and to improve both performance and corporate social responsibility. Yet little has been said about how mindfulness could enable, and in some cases already is enabling, better storytelling.
Arianna Huffington, whose devotion to mindfulness is well documented, was perhaps the first contemporary media entrepreneur to point out that “if we stay with ‘it bleeds it leads,’ we’re going to really miss out on all the things that transform our world.” That sentiment is driving many journalists into areas of news that are meant to help society, like solutions journalism, constructive journalism, positive news, and impact journalism.
“They all encourage a more mindful approach to our work,” says Mark Pearson, a professor of journalism and social media at Griffith University, in a Skype interview. “They’re each chipping away at it in a different way.”
Practically speaking, mindfulness can help journalists make choices in accord with the profession’s best practices: more long-term reporting on issues of public importance, more diversity of sources, more emphasis on solutions, and less fear-mongering.
“We leave [the mainstream] because the industry as a whole isn’t living up to its mandate. It’s not any one organization, it’s system-wide—it’s a design defect,” Setrakian tells CJR. As an industry, she continues, “we are navel-gazers, but it doesn’t mean we’re self-regulating and adequately self-reflective.”
That lack of reflection often results in formulaic practices that “don’t serve the user and don’t result in an optimal outcome, which is high-fidelity information,” she says.
Reflection, even in the time it takes for a smoke break, can help minimize the risks associated with hasty and unconscious decision-making.
Clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher Dr. Donna Rockwell says she can’t imagine a field that could benefit more from mindfulness practice than journalism.
“Journalism has to be a higher calling,” she tells CJR. Rockwell is a former journalist who worked with the late Daniel Schorr, who had an illustrious career at CBS, CNN, and NPR. “Mindfulness helps us stop being able to tell ourselves bologna—it’s an internal integrity meter. The more we use it, the less we’ll be drawn to a sensational interpretation,” she says.
The insight and emotional intelligence that comes from a mindful state naturally leads to ethical decision-making, says Pearson. Using Buddha’s Four Noble Truths as a framework, his co-authored book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era provides a scholarly roadmap for a more conscious, self-aware kind of journalism.
Buddha’s truths “offer a secular lens through which we can view our ethical behavior as individuals and as journalists,” Pearson says.
He concedes that ethics are often in conflict with the pressures of a real-time news desk, but says that reflection, even in the time it takes for a smoke break, can help minimize the risks associated with hasty and unconscious decision-making. Journalists, Pearson suggests, could adopt a reflective practice that might change how a story is told simply by thinking about how the information could affect consumers: “Is my story going to help reduce suffering, or is it going to increase it?”
When she started News Deeply, Setrakian says she saw a need to cover the “blind spots” being overlooked or sloppily framed by media. A mindful approach, she explains, can defuse even the most polarized conversation and turn it into something more diverse. “Mindfulness brings us down from the ivory tower, and helps us get closer to the ground in every way, intellectually as well.”
Setrakian says the entrepreneurial sphere is already influencing the mainstream, which, she says, “is still made up of people who mean well and want to do good. They are noticing a culture change, and I do believe it’s having a systematic impact.” She notes that News Deeply’s stories have been referenced by outlets across the political spectrum, from Breitbart to The New York Times, particularly related to coverage of Syria.
Salon.com staff writer Mary Elizabeth Williams has embraced that culture change and incorporated it into her craft. “I’m definitely trying to apply mindfulness to my work, especially now, in this new administration,” she writes in an email to CJR. In 2015, Williams was part of a mindfulness session offered to reporters covering war and conflict by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School.
Williams says the practice allows her to cope with writing about difficult situations like the Manchester bombing. “I feel it’s important to keep doing what we do, and it’s also important to remember our self care, every day,” she says.
Rockwell agrees. “Because news is so fast-paced, and news means real-time observation of impermanence, it really behooves us to be able to stay present and to not be swept away in our minds by this or that analysis, but rather to have enough space around all of that to be more emotionally intelligent.”
More journalists are awakening to the idea that business as usual isn’t sustainable. Maybe part of the antidote is a degree of mindfulness—whether practiced as an individual or as a newsroom.
“It is for the health and vitality—for the life—of democracy,” Rockwell says.
A little mindfulness in the profession may no longer be a choice, but an ethical imperative, to help foster more principled journalism and rebuild trust in the media.