Opinion Staff Writer
With the advent of the internet, the conventional responsibility of journalists as interpreters and distributors of information is being threatened.
Historically, the journalist’s role was to sift through facts and to provide citizens with accurate, reliable information with which they can make informed decisions. Yet, in the information age, immediacy without regard to accuracy is favored and journalists are left with less time to sort out what is true and significant. This demand for breaking news has made journalism less a refined product and more a process witnessed in real time.
The recent presidential election highlights the reductive effect the internet has on the role of a journalist to convey and interpret relevant information for voters. Using this technology, political figures can communicate en masse with the general public; effectively sidestepping the press and undercutting its role as fact-checkers.
Attempts by politicians to circumvent the press and communicate directly with the public is not a new concept.
Town hall meetings have existed since the seventeenth century. The difference is the effectiveness of this new medium to reach more people than ever before. The change from the industrial age to the information age has put an emphasis on communication through the development of new technologies, leaving journalistic integrity, and even journalism as a profession, behind for the sake of expediency.
With the internet, the amount of content currently available to the average person is unique in the context of human history. However, news articles on the internet and shared on social media are increasingly not written by journalists, and are not held to a factual standard, yet are consumed all the same. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter proliferate the abundance of sensationalistic, “shareable” news. Friend groups on social media act as an echo-chamber, where like-minded people share articles that reinforce already held beliefs amongst themselves. This further isolates people from dissenting viewpoints. These echo-chambers are simply an unavoidable byproduct of having a social media account, and can create an impenetrable barrier for conventional journalism.
This issue is exacerbated when social media is an individual’s only source of information. According to Pew Research, 61 percent of millennials use Facebook as their primary source for news about politics and government. In this environment, where personally agreeable information is readily available, distrust in the mainstream news is an easy conclusion, which only relegates the status of professional journalism and empowers those that wish to dismantle it.
The term Fourth Estate describes the role of Journalism by making implicit reference to the beginning of modern journalism in England and the division of the three states of realm — the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. The term was coined by Edmund Burke in 1787 when he used it in a parliamentary debate in which he called for the opening of press reporting in the house of Commons in Great Britain. In the United States, the Fourth Estate is thought to refer to the three branches of government, with journalism representing the people’s check on governmental power. The idea is that journalism is objective and apart from the government. This “apartness” is crucial to understanding the goal of the Fourth Estate, because the press does not share the same aims as the government, the clergy, or the nobility. It exists outside the established system. The phrase has become an ideal journalists aspire toward. For professionals, internalizing this ideal both rationalizes their work, especially in the face of criticism, and provides a model of behavior.
Distinguished journalists like Murrow, Cronkite, Woodward and Bernstein have helped define the profession of journalism by bringing truth to power, embodying the ideal of the Fourth estate. Contemporary investigative journalists who are not bound to corporate power structures, like Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill, carry on this tradition. Holding those in charge accountable is a simple concept with profound consequences. In this way, the Fourth Estate is the single most important institution in any democracy.
Historically, investigative journalists have uncovered stories that have changed the national perception and forced the government to accommodate the will of the people. Without Murrey Marder, McCarthyism may have been sustained. Without Daniel Ellsberg, the government may not have been pressured to end its involvement in the Vietnam War. Without Woodward and Bernstein, Nixon would have most likely remained president and his corrupt administration would not have been brought to justice. Since the late 19th century, journalism has been used to expose government wrongdoings, uncover secret practices and reveal corruption. Inn doing so, journalism has sparked the public outrage that has often led to reform.
With the dismantling of journalism, the integrity of our democracy is in jeopardy. Indifference to these issues, and not an inability to solve them, may ultimately be the downfall of the watchdog for the American people.