Definition of the Fourth Estate

Stop Calling the Press the Fourth Estate Unless You're Being Ironic

White House Press Briefing
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer conducts his daily media briefing at the James Brady Press Room of the White House in 2017. Alex Wong/Getty Images Staff

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, as the author William Safire once wrote.

An Outdated Term

Use of the term fourth estate to describe the modern media, though, is somewhat outdated unless it is with irony given the public's mistrust of journalists and news coverage in general.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, writing in Heroes and Hero-Worship in History:"

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. Other 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 carries with it a responsibility to be the people's watchdog. However, the traditional newspaper is threatened by shrinking readership. Television is focused on entertainment, even when it dresses it up as "news." Radio is threatened by satellites. All are confronted with the frictionless distribution enabled by the Internet, the disruptive effects of digital information. None have figured out a business model that pays for content at today's rates.

Bloggers may be great at filtering and framing information, but few have the time or resources to perform acts of investigative journalism.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, Kathy. "Definition of the Fourth Estate." ThoughtCo, Mar. 26, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-fourth-estate-3368058. Gill, Kathy. (2017, March 26). Definition of the Fourth Estate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-fourth-estate-3368058 Gill, Kathy. "Definition of the Fourth Estate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-fourth-estate-3368058 (accessed December 15, 2017).