In Memory of Dr. Shelton Gunaratne, journalist and professor, who became world-renowned for merging Eastern philosophy with Western communication theory.
By Dr. Ari Wijetunga, Dr. Asoka Dias and Dr. Junius Gunaratne
NEW YORK (IDN) – Dr. Dhavalasri Shelton Abeywickreme Gunaratne, a former Sri Lankan journalist and professor emeritus of Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) in the United States, passed away on March 8, 2019.
A prolific academic, Dr. Gunaratne, made substantial contributions to the field of mass communication. He wrote and published numerous books and academic papers that analyzed media in the developing world, reflected on freedom of the press internationally and constructed theoretical frameworks to explain media development, particularly in Asian countries.
Later in his career he made major contributions towards bridging Western academic communication theory and science with Eastern philosophy, winning him awards.
Outside of academia, Dr. Gunaratne frequently published articles and editorials on a broad range of topics ranging from travel to social issues in many newspapers in the United States and Sri Lanka. He made use of the press as a tool for advocating social justice and for increasing awareness of important social, political and environmental issues.
Born January 22, 1940 in the village of Pathegama, Sri Lanka, Dr. Gunaratne, who commonly went by Shelton, demonstrated his talent as a writer at an early age, mastering both Sinhalese and English languages.
At the age of 15 he published his first newspaper article, What I want to be, appearing in the Morning Times, a Sri Lankan daily newspaper. Newspaper editors at Lake House, the oldest and largest newspaper publisher in Sri Lanka soon recognized the talents of young Shelton and gave him a chance to explore journalism as a profession.
Shelton wrote stories about rural village life in Sri Lanka under the pseudonym Arcadius, reflecting on the characters he encountered on a daily basis in his youth from cinnamon peeler to washerwoman. The Ceylon Daily News published a collection of these sketches in 1966-67, and Dr. Gunaratne compiled the stories into his book, Village Life in the Forties, in 2012.
Enrolling at the Peradeniya Campus of the University of Ceylon in 1958, Shelton read economics since the university did not offer a degree in mass communication at the time. However, he continued to pursue his interest in journalism by starting a magazine named Prathibha and published several issues with the help of friends. After completing his undergraduate degree, Shelton worked as a journalist at Lake House for four years.
In 1966, Shelton won a World Press Institute fellowship in journalism in the United States. Over the course of 11 months, he travelled around the United States with 14 international journalists interviewing well-known people in the country including: President Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Winthrop Rockefeller, George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Walter Mondale.
Following the fellowship, Shelton enrolled at the University of Oregon School of Journalism where he completed his master’s degree in 1968 and subsequently enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
In 1972, Dr. Gunaratne received his Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication. His dissertation, Mass media information, Social differentiation and modernization: A longitudinal survey of four Ceylonese villages, later became a book.
Following completion of his doctorate, Dr. Gunaratne spent a year teaching at Central Missouri State University. He then took a full-time faculty position at the Science University of Malaysia (USM) in 1974, where he played a major role in the development of the School of Humanities and its programs.
In Malaysia, Dr. Gunaratne wrote editorial pieces that stirred public opinion on issues such as abnormally high fares imposed by taxi drivers on airline passengers and discrimination against colored people by colored people working in tourist hotels in Penang.
Dr. Gunaratne left USM in 1976 to take a tenure track faculty position at the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education (now Central Queensland University) in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, where he taught for nearly a decade. He encouraged his students to do investigative reporting in the student newspaper, provoking the university administration to censor some articles.
During his time in Australia, Dr. Gunaratne wrote articles published in several Australian newspapers on an array of political and social justice issues including: how to reform electoral districts, and many controversial articles about white racism in Australia, Australian prejudice against native aborigines and unfair treatment of faculty and students by university administration officials.
Returning to the United States in 1985, Dr. Gunaratne accepted a faculty position at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He remained a professor at MSUM for 22 years until his retirement in 2007. During his tenure at MSUM, Dr. Gunaratne continued his research in mass communication focusing on media in the developing world and freedom of the press in Asian countries.
He covered a broad range of topics including public and developmental journalism, global communication, and the effects of news on democratic values, to mention a few areas of his research.
In the latter portion of his career, Dr. Gunaratne focused his academic energies on globalizing communication studies and journalism by attempting to merge Eastern philosophies – particularly Buddhist and Daoist phenomenology.
His works included books such as Mindful Journalism and Media Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach and Asian communication theory. In his seminal book, The Dao of the Press, published in 2005, he argued that the classic Four Theories of the Press, articulated by Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm since 1956, and had become standard in textbooks in communication and society courses in Asia, as in the rest of the Western world, used Eurocentric history, theory and practice.
Dr. Gunaratne said he wrote Dao of the Press as an attempt to de-Westernize communication theory. His book interpreted press theory from the perspective of Eastern philosophy–particularly Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism and Confucianism. He proposed “a more humano-centric theoretical framework that reflects the marriage of Eastern ontology with Western epistemology.”
Dr. Gunaratne’s development of a humano-centric theory of press freedom presumes a world system that reflects the characteristics of a yin-yang (libertarian-authoritarian) spiral-shaped continuum. Therefore, he argued, communication theory must concede the Daoist notion of diversity within unity (varying degrees of freedom in different countries) because it describes the reality of nature.
Dr. Gunaratne received the AMIC Asia Communication award in 2016 in recognition of his “groundbreaking scholarship and intellectual contribution to Asian media and communication research.”
Dr. Gunaratne published a three-part, two volume autobiography in 2012 entitled, From Village Boy to Global Citizen, describing his life and travels throughout the world over the years. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Yoke-Sim; son, Junius Asela; daughter, Carmel Maya; and three grandchildren. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 March 2019]
Photo: Dr. Shelton Gunaratne. Source: Cover of From ‘Village Boy to Global Citizen (Volume 2)’, Amazon.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews