Many people are saturated with journalism of some variation throughout the day, whether online, in print or on television.
This phenomenon doesn’t spare the youth. I was invited to participate in the career fair at Wellsville-Middletown High School this past December to speak with the students about my career and the field of journalism. One of our major topics of discussion was the fundamental purpose of journalism.
While pretty much all the students knew the names of the major cable news networks, none were familiar with the term “fourth estate,” and since the career fair, I’ve come to find that many of my adult friends are also unaware of what is, at its base, the reason behind all of the news that buzzes around us.
Journalism, at its core, is more than a business venture. It is a pillar of free society, separate from but necessary for the function and preservation of our republic. Its mission was woven into the fabric of our society within the very first amendment to our Constitution.
The right to a free press was not formed just for the benefit of celebrity commentators with hot takes on day’s presidential tweets. It was developed so citizens can knowledgeably participate in elections, while limiting the ability of potential tyrants to mislead the people with unchallenged propaganda.
As I explained this to the students, I feared it was all going over their heads. I recall one young lady telling me, “You sound smart,” which is distinctly different from, “That’s interesting, I think I see where you’re going with this.”
I fell back on a bit of history to help put things into perspective.
The Founding Fathers wanted above all else to never again fall under the rule of monarchy — rule of the one — which many considered in the case of Great Britain and other European nations to be synonymous with tyranny. One of the commonly used monarchical strategies to suppress popular uprisings was controlling the newspapers. It was rather simple in those times. If the journalists at a particular publication spread information unfavorable to the government, police would simply go take apart their printing press and arrest those who would cause further problems.
The name Fourth Estate has its origins in France. The French parliament under the Bourbon monarchy prior to the 1789 revolution was known as the Estates General, with three distinct groupings — the clergy, or First Estate, the nobility, or Second Estate, and the commoners, or Third Estate. The power exercised by the press, watching over the other three, made it the Fourth Estate.
My favorite example of that power is when the editors of the Journal de Rouen on July 28, 1830, in France locked themselves in with their printing press after King Charles X suspended press freedoms to consolidate power. The editors somehow convinced several locksmiths to walk off the job rather open the door and allow the police to shut the paper down.
Another French revolution was soon to come.
Press freedoms make it difficult for a potential tyrant to manipulate public information and undermine our democracy. The fundamental function of the Fourth Estate has not changed, even as some journalists can get caught up in party lines, hot takes and trends. If anything, the estate becomes more important as the internet aids the spread of misleading information on a massive scale. This is especially important when the other three estates — executive, congressional and judicial — are heavily influenced by a political party.
The American media can seem like a tangled mess of facts, stances and stories, but it is this variety that shows just how free we are in this country. There seems to be an outlet for almost every possible political, social or cultural viewpoint. While this somewhat anarchical system has its downfalls — informational echo chambers, news burnout, intentionally misleading stories — it is also a sheer sign that our Fourth Estate is as strong as ever. No matter which government official messes up, some journalist out there will be more than happy to call them out on it.
I hope the students have a greater appreciation of what journalism is intended for after our talk and will think critically about whether the news they see, listen to or read is fulfilling the base function of our craft, informing the people to help create a more perfect democracy, whether locally or nationally.