The Fourth Estate is a term that refers to the press (initially it specifically referred to newspapers) as an unofficial fourth branch of government. One that is vitally important if a democracy is to function effectively. The quote has a few attributions, but it most likely originated with Edmund Burke, a British politician. According to Thomas Carlyle’s book, “Heroes and Hero Worship in History,” Burke explained that there were three Estates in Parliament, but “in the Reporters Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important far than they all.”
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom … of the press.” The Constitution establishes a government with three branches. The media is not a fourth branch, but by securing the freedom of the press the Constitution does in effect bestow a responsibility on the press and on the country’s citizens. The freedom of the press is a constant. It does not depend on the whim of the ruling party. But for the press to remain free, that freedom cannot be taken for granted. In order for the media to do its job, our First Amendment rights must be vigilantly protected and that falls to us, the people. These are rights that need to safeguarded. They can be slowly eroded.
It’s going to be the traditional media, the legacy media, that will need to be the vanguard. Much was made of the role of social media in the election. Accusations, counter accusations, true stories and factious stories flew fast and furious. So much information was gleaned from social media outlets that many began to confuse social media with traditional media. But, in fact, they are different animals. Social media can disseminate factually-based true stories, but it can just as easily spread fiction posing as truth like wildfire. There is no vetting in the social media stratosphere. No journalistic standards to (at the very least) strive for.
Social media was never meant to serve as a source where people look for journalistic stories or vetted news reports. Again, some vetted journalistic stories are shared in the social media world, but so are rants and raves and accounts of what people had for lunch.
Now that the election is over, it is going to be the legacy media’s job to regain the public’s trust. It needs to restore its tarnished image after covering the Presidential campaign as it would a carnival sideshow. More importantly the media (journalists, producers and editors alike) will need to show their resilience and tenacity and not be cowed by any attempts to minimize or silence them.
The Fourth Estate needs the public’s protection in order to exercise its watchdog mission. Its role is vital in a vibrant democracy.
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