An informed citizenry is essential to a functioning democracy. A neutral and unbiased press is necessary to educate citizens. But the growth of digital media outlets that allow anyone and everyone to become “journalists” who share the news of the day has eroded the value The Fourth Estate and bred mistrust between the media and the people. 

Anyone, on either end of the political spectrum and everywhere in between, can present any information on digital outlets as facts. Those in power have taken advantage of this opportunity to bypass the fact-checking media and mislead the citizenry with presentation of biased information, so-called “fake news” and outright lies.

To make matters worse, because of the 24-news cycle and the rush to be the first to break the news, when journalists do have the opportunity to investigate, they often fail to do so in the race to report. This has led to a lack of trust between citizens and those they depend upon to investigate and report the facts truthfully.

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, only 41 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly.” In a political system that depends on the media to inform citizens, that lack of trust can indicate foundational cracks in a democracy.

“This decline in public trust in media is dangerous for democracies,” stresses Darrell West, founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. “With the current political situation in a state of great flux in the U.S. and around the world, there are questions concerning the quality of the information available to the general public and the impact of marginal media organizations on voter assessments. 

“These developments have complicated the manner in which people hold leaders accountable and the way in which our political system operates.”

That’s why The Fourth Estate, at or closest to its weakest point in U.S. history, is more important than ever for representing the interests of the people.

How Those in Power Are Using the Digital Media Landscape to Misrepresent ‘Facts’

Social media has become a powerful tool for connecting people and sharing information, which should be a benefit for a democratic society. While that has been true to a certain degree, it has also morphed into a liability because of the ability of bad-faith actors to mislead the public with the information they share.

In Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Report, authors Samantha Bradshaw and Philip Howard explain that information campaigns designed to manipulate public opinion with false or misleading social media posts have become standard political practice. The report notes that government agencies in countries across the globe, such as communication ministries and the military, are shaping the flow of information.

And they have greater reach than ever with their messaging. “Although propaganda has always been a part of political discourse, the deep and wide-ranging scope of these campaigns raise critical public interest concerns,” Bradshaw and Howard warn. 

There are a variety of actors, they write, who are using social media “to shape public opinion, set political agendas, and propagate ideas.” These actors are getting away with manipulation and bias in part because the free press has been compromised. 

Fake news headline on a newspaper; value of the Fourth Estate concept

Contemporary Media Magnify Biases Instead of Mitigating Them

The essence of The Fourth Estate is that the press should be politically neutral. It serves as a check between those in power and the public, investigating the facts and reporting the unbiased truth. 

But that essence has been eroded by the changing media landscape. 

One of the biggest issues the press is battling in their efforts to report unbiased truths is the 24-hour news cycle. Traditionally, when a news outlet is the first to report a story, it gets recognition for breaking the news. The 24-hour news cycle amplifies the pressure of being the one to break the story because anybody can break the news or scoop the story at any given time.

So, instead of taking their time to fully investigate a story to report, media outlets now are rushing to be the first to report the news, whether the facts have been fully checked or not. 

This is how bias creeps in. When a reporter, even one acting in good faith, doesn’t get to the truth of a new story, that person ends up reporting news as it’s given to them and as they understand it. Whatever biases that person has will inform how they understand a story.

“Both sides argue their views to the point that neither listens to the other side,” Jeff Sorenson, contributor to the Huffington Post, wrote back in 2012. “They’ll sink into their beliefs even if there is no evidence supporting it.”

Another trend that has pushed the press away from truly investigative journalism is that people now expect their news in “bit-size” headlines, says Eric Holdeman, national security consultant. To meet this expectation, in-depth reporting has essentially gone by the wayside in the rush to get the news out first in a format palatable to news consumers — as a headline they can quickly skim, maybe share and consider themselves informed. 

And even those brief headlines reflect the biases of the reporter, the outlet’s editor and/or the publication.

Maria Konnikova, author and contributor to The New Yorker, shares that psychologists have noted that the crafting of a headline can impact the perception of the text of the article. “By drawing attention to certain details or facts, a headline can affect what existing knowledge is activated in your head,” Konnikova writes. “By its choice of phrasing, a headline can influence your mindset as you read so that you later recall details that coincide with what you were expecting.”

When a reporter fails to perform due diligence on a story, then, biases flourish throughout the reporting, packaging and consumption of the story.

That needs to change.

video camera viewfinder - recording show in tv studio - focus on camera; value of the Fourth Estate concept

The Press Needs to Re-Establish Its Place as a Counterbalance

Because of all these pressures from the new digital media landscape, The Fourth Estate has become more pivotal and crucial than ever. People are being bombarded with information at all times, and not all of it factual. 

But not everyone is able to make the distinction between facts and fiction online. That’s why the press needs to re-establish itself as a reliable source for getting the facts right and educating the public to the truth. It needs to get back to its investigative roots where journalists questioned every “fact” and dug deeper to ascertain truth. In doing so, they help keep a check on those in power.

Like in 1972, when Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward investigated the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon. They were responsible for the majority of the original reporting on the scandal, earning them a Pulitzer Prize. 

Or, in 2002, when reporting by the Boston Globe in more than 800 articles over two years exposed sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. The paper also won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its investigative reporting on the scandal. The coverage led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and more than 150 priests being accused of sexual misconduct. 

At the moment, governments can more or less use digital media platforms for the explicit purpose of manipulating the public to their way of thinking — without impunity — giving them unrivaled power over public discourse. If the press can’t find a way to live up to its role as the guardian of truth and intervene on behalf of the people, then fake news, misinformation and biased reporting will irreparably tip the scales of power away from the people.

It’s time for the press to regroup and refocus. The Fourth Estate has more access than ever to the people it is supposed to serve. 

The same technology that has eroded the trust people have in the press is “cultivating a culture that is widely receptive to the press due to increased accessibility through developments such as online editions of print newspapers and increased opportunities for global dialogue,” says Sydney Owada, former opinions editor at The Pioneer Log, Lewis and Clark College’s student-run newspaper. 

The press needs to take advantage of the opportunity to reach a receptive audience and rebuild the trust that nurtures a democracy.

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