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What is the Fourth Estate?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

The media constitutes the fourth estate.
The media constitutes the fourth estate.

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 fourth estate, or the press, is considered an important aspect of a democracy.
The fourth estate, or the press, is considered an important aspect of a democracy.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

Discussion Comments


In my opinion, the Fox, CBS, NBC/MSNBC, and ABC "news" organizations never had any credibility. They are just filthy extremist "yellow journalism" propaganda outlets, much like the Nazi-era propaganda machine, the Soviet-era Pravda and also Al-Jazeera (ie, the Terrorist News Network).

CNN used to be fair and balanced, but has become another liberal mouthpiece. There are no real news organizations in America anymore, and no real journalists, unfortunately. The Fourth Estate is dead, and has been for quite some time.


Too stupid to vote.

What a thing to say. Yet can it be true? With a lack of interest and less involvement by we the people in our constitutional duties as a people, we see things accepted today that would not have been news or even considered by most Americans just a few decades ago.

Tic-tac-toe and I like the way this one’s name sounds. Is today’s popular way of voting, and then we have, “Who did you vote for?” Not long ago, the ads you see today would not be allowed and yes, not long ago you would not see the nudes on TV or hear profanity in press radio or films and TV. Have we gone too far liberal to even care? "I don’t have time to vote," is something I hear a lot, and one said she could not pick the right one.

CNN, NBC, ABC, FOX, NPR and hosts of HBO programs will tell you every day they are rated number one and have been for ten years. The news is frothy, it gets the blood rolling and stirs the emotions on everything from voting to sex, and yet there is little substance.

ADHD studies have shown adverse effects on kids under two and some studies suggest a correlation with autism and more TV viewing, and we know the is is less likely one will read things of substances when one watches more TV.Thank God for two-minute commercials. You stink, buy this, buy that, you’re too fat, you're too skinny, vote for me! Half-truths availed us nothing and the deception of political ads is criminal, in my opinion, and they are offensive and scream, you’re too stupid, so vote for me I will fix everything.

Times are changing. In the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, not voting could get you excommunicated from the church. Indians, slaves and women could not vote. Women finally won the battle and right to vote in 1929. God was a big part of daily life and big part of the Constitution and can be seen in the Declaration of Independence. People went to church twice daily. Some of the old puritanical laws made no sense then or now and it took effort and votes to change these laws. These were laws that could get you hanged or burned at the stake.Eating cornflakes on Sunday was against the law and led to charges of witchcraft. No wonder every one turned out to vote.

In a world where the church had more power than Kings and Queens, the clergy were the power players of the day.

Secession from England started us on the road we’re on today. The church has limited influence on lives and politics today. Yet I am grateful for the ministers of all faiths who teach peace, responsibility and voting to name a few. Although slavery is no longer in existence, let’s not kid our selves about racism and bigotry which still exist in many forms. I stand against these things personally and I think you should too.

Once daily life revolved around God and politics, but today, we are too busy to vote or find quiet time for God. I remember the voting polls when I was a kid, and men wore hats with a brim band to tuck in the cards for their guys running and campaign signs on the sides of doors as you entered to vote. Today that is outlawed. I can’t even state out loud who I voted for fear of temping you to vote like me.

Deceitful ads and political correctness are about the same thing to me. Your choice of faith or sexual orientation has no place in the polls and neither should the color of your skin. Regardless of race, color or creed, an American motto that says we as people means we look past these things, yet do we? Let’s all vote and encourage others to do the same.

Play the game of tic-tac-toe or name recognition and guessing gives us a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right. Not voting gives credence to "too stupid to vote" and is not a good game for you, or the country or me. So vote.


How can one not see there is no media outlet that does not lean to the left or the right? Fox, ABC,

NPR, NBC, as well as the radio and press. We stand to lose the fourth estate if we as a people do not act. Encourage others to run for every office in the land and end the incumbent stalemate. Freedom once gained must be protected.


@anon220041: My goodness, how can anybody still exist who is trapped into believing the false left/right political paradigm?

There are not two political parties in the US, but rather one and only one: corrupt, incompetent ruling class elite pretending to be two separate political parties. Look it up.

Purge your mind of the political propaganda you have been programmed with, and suddenly what is happening in America will make a lot more sense. Time to wake up.


My goodness, how can anyone possibly believe that Fox News offers balanced views? Because they tell you they do and select really weak "commentators" to represent liberal positions?

I'd say that Fox is winning ratings by catering to the views of an audience which is right-leaning, not because they cover both sides of an issue in a fair and balanced way. I also feel they were one of the first news outlets to move away from trying to present news in a neutral way. I believe the success they found has forced competitors to similarly report with a biased spin (often in the other direction).

Don't take me as a liberal apologist - I'm pretty moderate in my views. But I feel most TV news has gotten as polarized in their coverage of the world as our (USA) two parties have gotten in their politics.

I don't know how much this shift has been driven by an agenda (I sense that the consolidation of much the press under corporate umbrellas may be contributing to this) or simply the need to attract viewers (so the network can charge more for advertising). The end result is that it is virtually impossible to use the news to get a neutral perspective on anything these days, and you definitely cannot depend on sound bites from Fox or CNN to do it. You have to listen to both sides and use your brain to decide for yourself where the truth lies (typically somewhere in the middle).


Comfyshoes-I don’t always agree with Bill O’Reily, but I like how he protects kids and brings attention to bad judges that have given light sentences to pedophiles.

There was a case in Vermont in which a child molester was sentence to a few months in jail for raping a little girl under 5. This story brought attention to the lack of justice that children receive and I learned a lot about it.

Many of these judges resign or experience a backlash after stories like this are reported on Fox.

But to go back to the other media outlets, sometimes they target people to see what types of stories they can come up with rather then reporting the stories that already exist.

For example, a CBS Nevada reporter Nathan Baca stated that all they had to do was find a child molester in a Joe Miller rally and they would help their cause. This is not journalism. Many of these so called journalists have reduced their profession to be political operatives for the left.


BrickBack-I heard about that. They often will have like five liberal commentators and no conservative commentators.

How can you get a balanced view from that? The American public is centering right. They are alienated when they watch these shows because their views are never represented, so they tune elsewhere.

Fox News for example always has both politically left and right commentators to offer balanced views. Their ratings are so high that they beat all of the network channels in the ratings for the election coverage.

They were in the number one spot in ratings for the election coverage and this is a cable channel that not everyone has access to. People like Fox News because it is the only outlet that offers a conservative point of view.

But unlike its competitors, it also discusses the liberal point of view and has a staff of liberal commentators many of whom came from NPR, National Public Radio.

You tend to hear a lot of news that the other media outlets choose not to carry. This is another form of bias that the media has when they choose to cover one story and ignore a more compelling story because it may hurt their political party.

I do not think this form of journalism is in the same light as the fourth estate.


SauteePan-I agree with you. I remember Chris Matthews from MSNBC was talking about getting a tingling up his leg when Obama was elected.

That in itself does not show impartiality at all. In fact, two years later when the Republicans swept the House of Representatives with a gain of 63 seats Chris Matthews had Michelle Bachmann, a House member from Minnesota on his show.

He told her that she must be in a trance because she answers his questions exactly the same. This was inferring her lack of intelligence and Michele Bachmann retorted back that she wonders if he still has that tingle in his leg for Obama.

This mistreatment of a Republican congresswomen was disgraceful, but that is what most of the media has become. MSNBC is among the lowest ratings in the cable news industry. I now know why.


I agree that journalism and the right to free speech is an important human right especially in free societies.

However, many journalists claim to be objective and just report the news, but few actually do. Gone are the days of just reporting the news and allowing the viewership to draw their own conclusions.

Often editorializing and choosing to purse politically motivated stories in an uneven fashion erodes the journalistic integrity that the media claims to have.

Due to the lack of credibility and often the failure to remain neutral when reporting the news has caused many media outlets to lose viewers and readers.

For example, CNN has a program with Elliot Spitzer that had a Nielsen rating of just 55,000 viewers! Most cable programs on the Fox News channel have millions of viewers. CNN and MSNBC continue to struggle with ratings because their coverage is not balanced and much skewed to the left politically.

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    • The media constitutes the fourth estate.
      By: s96serg
      The media constitutes the fourth estate.
    • The fourth estate, or the press, is considered an important aspect of a democracy.
      By: by-studio
      The fourth estate, or the press, is considered an important aspect of a democracy.