The fourth estate is the public press, referred to as a collective and encompassing photographers, journalists, television broadcasters, and radio announcers, among others. Many people generally agree that the press, or media, has immense political and social power, thanks to the fact that it can be used to shape societies while imparting news of note and commentary of interest. Because it is recognized as such an important body, many nations have laws which protect the rights of the press, ensuring that citizens have access to reporting on matters of interest and of note.
The origins of the term “the fourth estate” are best explained within the context of the medieval “estates of the realm.” In medieval society, three “estates” were formally recognized: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. Each estate had a very distinct social role and a certain level of power, and the idea became so entrenched in European society that it still lives on, to some extent, although society is far more egalitarian today.
In the middle of the 19th century, people began referring to the press as a fourth estate, referencing the fact that most parliaments and other houses of government had an area set aside specifically for the use of the press, and pointing out that the press was a distinct group within the larger framework of the realm. Several historians credit the coinage of the term to Edmund Burke, who is said to have referenced it when discussing the French Revolution, and Thomas Carlyle, a 19th century author, popularized the term.
The press plays a very important role in most societies, reporting on a wide variety of topics and creating powerful personalities who are relied upon for sources of information and commentary. Writing about the first estate in 1841, Thomas Carlyle pointed out that the press had a powerful role in parliamentary procedure, shaping the will of the people and influencing the outcome of votes among the government, as well. Carlyle also argued that the press was an important part of a democratic society, saying that writing gives people “a tongue which others will listen to.”
Because of the importance of journalism in society, most members of the media abide by certain professional and personal ethics. Many journalists attempt to cultivate an air of neutrality, focusing on reporting of the issues as they are so that people can judge the facts for themselves, while others focus on offering commentary and analysis from the perspective of a particular position. Journalists are careful as a whole to protect the integrity of the press, protecting sources, verifying information before publication, and using a variety of other techniques to convey a trustworthy appearance to the public, encouraging people to put their faith in the media.