July 3, 2017    7 minute read

Why the Fourth Estate Is Crumbling

Has the Watchdog Lost Its Teeth?    July 3, 2017    7 minute read

Why the Fourth Estate Is Crumbling

The Oxford English Dictionary, according to ThoughtC0, attributes the term “Fourth Estate” to Lord Brougham in 1823. In England, the Fourth Estate comes after the three estates of King, Clergy and Commoners. In the United States, the Fourth Estate sits alongside the three branches of government.

A recent Guardian article highlights the challenges facing the Fourth Estate. The Freedom of Press guaranteed in the US by the First Amendment carries with it the obligation that the press should be the watchdog of the people. The only way for the electorate to responsibly exercise its constitutional duty to elect representatives to carry out the job of governing is to be well informed both about issues that matter and about those elected to deal with those issues.

As is the case with many aspects of out current social and political ecosystems, Donald Trump is breaking fresh ground by debasing many of the currencies of social exchange. He is not, however, the source of the problem, merely the most conspicuous symptom of a broader malaise. Apple has historically been less an inventor than it has been a shaper of new technology in a format most likely to bring it to its highest and best use among consumers.

Donald Trump, by contrast, typically takes something already bad – sexism, misogyny, mendacity, intellectual laziness, poorly used language –  and makes it truly awful. In doing so, he has heightened awareness of those things that one cherishes in public discourse and social interaction and forced people to confront the underpinnings of their continued existence.

Measuring the Media

The Fourth Estate is under attack – it is important to understand how it should best be defended. As the Guardian article points out, ‘democracy’ in media is not a great test. Ranking the importance of media by the circulation or viewership numbers is a process likely to result in a defining down of media to the lowest or most popular common denominator.

There is a pecking order of news: at the top of the UK circulation rankings sit two papers whose focus on sex, sensationalism and voyeurism is well known. The Daily Mail and the Sun are certainly popular but do not move the chains of human understanding forward anymore than gladiatorial combat did in Ancient Rome.

The parallel chart for the US tells a different story. While there are some similarities between the attention-grabbing style of some of the top-ranked USA Today headlines, the paper quickly breaks into more substantive news, whereas the Daily Mail goes ever deeper into the shallowness of sensational and tawdry stories.

The most striking contrast, however, is in the second-place ranking: The Sun vs. The Wall Street Journal. Both are owned by News Corporation, but could not be farther apart in style, quality or topics they cover.

Quality and Viability

Investigative journalism costs money, and its results do not always pay for the effort required to produce them. Pro Publica, with an annual budget of $10m, keeps track of the impact its stories have. Its series on acetaminophen is estimated to have cost $750,000 and taken two years. The information is available free on the Pro Publica website. Its funding is from foundations and individuals. The payoff in lives saved is incalculable, and the value of this kind of journalism is beyond question.

Aggregators such as Drudge and Breitbart claim simply to curate news from all sources, but they leak selection bias from the right. Slate and Huffington Post provide a similar diet with a left-leaning selection bias. This, of course, is worrying.

Talk radio and cable TV have MSNBC, CNN and Fox News fighting for their constituents and the ratings that go with them. Fox News was conceived by Roger Ailes on the premise that viewers and listeners did not necessarily need to be informed, provided they felt informed. This had major budgetary implications: rather than conduct the kind of investigative journalism expected of the more traditional news media, Fox could simply curate news second hand.

Debasing the Medium

The rationalisation of less reputable news sources has found its perfect pitchman in Donald Trump. As part of the anti-elite, anti-mainstream media narrative, he has persuaded his base not only to distrust mainstream sources but also to see criticism of more marginal sources such as Breitbart and InfoWars by the so-called elites as proof positive of their reliability.

An unfortunate consequence of the mainstream media’s outrage (or ‘gloatrage’) is that political bias has begun to leak from the opinion pages into the news coverage, giving detractors further reason to eschew what have been traditionally high-quality news outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The Fourth Estate has entered something of a crisis in which outrage, bias, entertainment, ratings, the internet (and the proliferation of un-curated sources with limited quality control filters) have merged into a fast-flowing stream of uncertain depth where those who enter have no reliable tools to navigate.

The news audience has become unmoored from its bearings, and the unreliability of a few sources has begun to taint all sources and drive the argument that if all sources are tainted, then any source is as reliable (or unreliable) as any other. False equivalence is rife, and people tend to take refuge where their bias is comfortably affirmed.

Facts, Facts, Facts

True and false do exist. Facts are not negotiable. Some people are, on some topics, more qualified to be heard than others. Better speak to an oncologist about a suspected tumour. Better listen to a physicist if you want to learn about string theory. They are both members of an elite.

Those who ignore them because of their elite membership status do so at their own risk. The skills required to report the news daily are considerable. Journalism is a craft that needs to be learned. It is not hard to discern quality in journalism or to be appalled by the lack of it.

People do, of course, have the right to choose what news they consume. Do people have a right to remain uneducated? No. All children must attend school through high school, with 26 US states setting the benchmark at 16 and other at 17 or 18. There is, however, no obligation to remain informed beyond that. The hope, presumably, is that the first 18 years will have sufficiently conveyed the importance of doing so.

The news is a worthy project in need of careful attention. Just as Amnesty International carefully examines all possible clues to veracity in examining alleged human rights abuses, so news organisations have an obligation to examine the truthfulness of facts on which they report.

The increasingly sophisticated means by which “fake news” can be produced requires the diligence process to become more sophisticated. Tools exist – examining metadata for pictures being one example – to uncover mischief, but the battle is just beginning and more tools are needed.

Conclusion

The job of the Fourth Estate is to provide the information and insights that keep the citizenry informed.

The journalists that staff the quality sources are intelligent, resourceful people – they are above the body slams and denigration to which they are currently being subjected – but they must guard their reputations jealously and, while never shirking their duty to report for fear of the consequences, must not be dragged into the wrestling ring.

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