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The Fourth Estate – Then and Now

To understand what has happened to modern day media, press, or news outlets we need to examine where it all came from. We need to understand just how powerful the media is and has been to society. Information is key. Communication is key. So new information becomes paramount in the basic machinations and operations of governments or overall workings of a society or country. Before the French Revolution, those in power, persuasion and influence, divided society into “Estates”. The 4th Estate refers to a segment in society that has indirect but significant power to influence the political system or the society in general.



The Term Fourth Estate was used during a parliamentary debate in 1787 by Edmund Burke¹ regarding “opening up” the English House of Commons to the press. He used this in association with the three higher estates of the realm. These consisted of the First Estate, the Monarchy with Church; the Second Estate or Nobility; and the Third Estate or the common folk, peasants or proletariat.


The Historical Hierarchy of Estates:

  1. Monarchy and/or Church*
  2. Nobility
  3. Commoners (proletariat)
  4. Press

Modern Day Correlation of Estates:

  1. Executive Administration
  2. Legislative Congress
  3. Judicial Courts
  4. Mainstream Media
  5. Non-Mainstream Media

The acknowledged 4th Estate is historically the media, whether it be newspapers, photography, radio, or television. Now it is asserted that modern day online news outlets consisting of independent blogs, websites, and postings across social media may fit the description.

Because such a shift occurred when the Internet became mainstream, and nontraditional news outlets became more readily available and searched for, some scholars have decided this group of media should have its own title, “The Fifth Estate”.  See ”A Time In History” above. The division of society by Estates is seen as old fashioned and outdated. Perhaps so and perhaps most to the younger generations. However there can be gems from the past that should be passed on and taught. Such as this Code of Ethics from The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

The SPJ is the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States. There is an SPJ Code of Ethics that’s been around since 1909. In the Preamble it states:

“Members of The Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

After the Preamble the SPJ tells us there are four corner stones. Let’s take a brief look at each. The full Code of Ethics can be found at²

Accuracy and Fairness
The Code indicates that reporters are to be impartial; examining the ways their experiences and values may influence their reporting. Before providing anonymity, reporters should check the credibility and motives of their sources, in addition to the information being given. Journalists should never distort facts or contexts.

Respect All Parties Involved
Reporting news as the public’s right to know must be balanced with what potential harm it may bring should it be reported. While difficult to do, it needs to be evaluated without bias. Per the Code, “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” The Code acknowledges that “legal access to information” can be different to the “ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

Obligation to Public
According to the Code, journalists must have a primary focus and obligation to report facts to better serve the public. To do this it is suggested that certain things should be avoided such as conflicts of interest (real or perceived), gifts, favors and money received or paid for news. In addition it says “deny favored treatment to … special interests, and resist…pressure to influence coverage that could compromise integrity or impartiality or damage credibility”.

Take Responsibility
To ensure that reporting remains ethical it may become necessary to have the journalists explain their thought processes and choices, keeping a “civil dialogue”. Mistakes should be acknowledged, corrected or clarified where appropriate. Questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness should be answered quickly.

The SPJ’s abiding principles are further explained on their website .  SPJ disclaims that the information is subject to changing journalistic practices. And that the Code is not a set of rules but rather guidelines for journalists in order to assist them in taking responsibility for their reporting, no matter what medium used. The Code is not legally enforceable under the 1st Amendment of the Constitution.

The craft of Journalism has had a long standing of respectable reporting in most cases throughout recorded history; and of being unbiased, above reproach. In my youth, so enthralled with the status of becoming a Journalist, I seriously looked at pursuing that as a career. However, life took me in a different direction. Obviously the “Press” or “Media” has and will evolve over time. What was considered important “back in the day” may not now be the same. However the SPJ’s four cornerstones still this day are altruistic statements and goals, worthy of commendation. On its member solicitation page of the website is stated:

“For more than 100 years the Society of Professional Journalists has been dedicated to encouraging a climate in which journalism can be practiced more freely and fully, stimulating high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism and perpetuating a free press.”

Looking at these quotes and guidelines, we ask ourselves today³:
 “Are these standards being adhered to today?”
 “Should we care?”
“What standards would you like to see the 4th Estate,[or 5th Estate],practice to be a source you can trust?”

*The Monarchy and the Church were conjoined in that the Church was highly influential to the Monarchical decisions, and the Monarchy was seen as the leader of the Church. ¹
²Source: The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics at
³Interesting link:

Written by PJ Harrington
© All Rights Reserve

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