Does the Media Still Represent the Fourth Estate?

For years, the media has been known as the Fourth Estate of democracy, working as a channel of independent communication between the Government and society – being the watchdogs of a representative country.

However, as time has gone on, there has been considerable debate over whether the media still deserves this title. For instance, in the United States, the media is now known as the ‘Fourth Branch”, which is a stark contrast to the Fourth Estate. The Fourth Branch is used to illustrate how the media now acts as another branch of government, not reflecting the independence required for ‘government by the people’.

State Censorship

Media Influence

The concept of state censorship brings to mind images of Government intervention in the printing of political news – regulating the distribution of material through legislative action.

While this may have been the case in previous years, contemporary politicians now employ a new, more subtle form of censorship. According to Goodwin’s Low Conspiracy – Government interference in the BBC (2005), when the BBC once indicated they were broadcasting potentially controversial material, the government quietly recommended those programmes be scrapped.

Within New Zealand, TV3 once arranged to broadcast a political leaders debate in the build up to the 2008 election. However, the two main party leaders refused to attend, effectively bullying TV3 into changing the conditions of the debate.

We want it…and we want it NOW

At the same time, time constraints dramatically affect the quality of government scrutinisation. Because a small group of Parliamentary media cover a wide range of gallery reporting, there is little time for quality analysis and in-depth probing of all potential legislation.

Accordingly, politicians can provide misleading media releases and political spin, which the media may then fail to analyse and present in a balanced and accurate manner. One political party’s media manager therefore has the ability to influence the news agenda – a scary concept in a democracy.

Without a high standard of political analysis and commentary, the Fourth Estate does become the Fourth Branch of government.

“Infotainment”

As society has become more instantaneous, it’s also become more trivial – which has directly affected news media. Indeed, political media is now beginning to focus on ‘infotainment’, political information broadcast as a form of entertainment. News values now determine political information, with a preference towards the unusual or sensational over facts and policies.

The fight for ratings has also turned leaders debates from serious policy debates into trivial and entertaining banter. This results in the media focusing on items which people find interesting, rather than reporting for society’s best interest. Such broadcasts seem based on the theory that politics is theatre, instead of an important democratic operation.

As infotainment increases, media output is also becoming shorter and more fragmented. Several years ago, hour long programmes were devoted to analysing and discussing one important policy issue, examining many different aspects and effects of real world application .

However, in the current market, a thirty-minute programme will be divided up into three or more issues, dramatically condensing the material presented. Accordingly, interviews predominantly consist of sound bites, which may be taken out of context and twisted to suit the final broadcast. With less time devoted to examining different policies and their effects, the general public are no longer as well informed as they have been in previous years.

The Results?

Since people must be fully informed in order for public debate to work at its full capacity, the decrease in media quality is now reflected in public opinion.

For instance, while New Zealand has traditionally produced a high voter turnout, the country recorded the eighth steepest decline in turnout among OECD countries between 1945 and 1999. Public opinion no longer consists of active thoughtful participation, rather it primarily encompasses superficial and passive forms of involvement.

Sadly, these pitfalls ruin any credibility of the media as the fourth estate, since it’s failing to assist and improve the public functions of representative democracy. As a result, public participation in political affairs is likely to decrease, since people are no longer well informed about political activities.