The term fourth estate is used to describe the press.
Describing journalists and the news outlets for which they work as members of the fourth estate is an acknowledgment of their influence and status among the greatest powers of a nation, the author William Safire once wrote.
The term goes back centuries when it applied to any unofficial group that wielded public influence, including a mob.
An Outdated Term
Use of the term fourth estate to describe the modern media, though, is somewhat outdated unless it is with irony, given the public's mistrust of journalists and news coverage in general. Fewer than a third of news consumers say they trust the media, according to the Gallup organization.
"Before 2004, it was common for a majority of Americans to profess at least some trust in the mass media, but since then, less than half of Americans feel that way. Now, only about a third of the U.S. has any trust in the Fourth Estate, a stunning development for an institution designed to inform the public," Gallup wrote in 2016.
"The phrase lost its vividness as the other 'estates' faded from memory, and now has a musty and stilted connotation," wrote Safire, a former New York Times columnist. "In current use 'the press' usually carries with it the aura of 'freedom of the press' enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, while press critics usually label it, with a sneer, 'the media.'"
Origins of Fourth Estate
The term fourth estate is often attributed to British politician Edmund Burke. Thomas Carlyle, in Heroes and Hero-Worship in History, writes:
Burke said that there were three Estates in Parliament, but in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than them all.
The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the term fourth estate to Lord Brougham in 1823. Others attributed it to English essayist William Hazlitt.
In England, the three estates preceding the fourth estate were the king, the clergy and the commoners.
In the United States, the term fourth estate is sometimes used to place the press alongside the three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial.
The fourth estate refers to the watchdog role of the press, one that is important to a functioning democracy.
Role of the Fourth Estate
The First Amendment to the Constitution "frees" the press. But that freedom carries with it a responsibility to be the people's watchdog. The traditional newspaper, however, is threatened by shrinking readership, and the watchdog role is not being filled by other forms of media.
Television is focused on entertainment, even when it dresses it up as "news." Traditional radio stations are threatened by satellite radio, with no ties to local concerns.
All are confronted with the frictionless distribution enabled by the Internet, the disruptive effects of digital information. Few have figured out a business model that pays for content at today's rates.
Personal bloggers may be great at filtering and framing information, but few have the time or resources to perform acts of investigative journalism.
- Safire, William. “The One-Man Fourth Estate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 June 1982
- Swift, Art. “Americans' Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup.com, Gallup