In the United States, the term fourth estate is sometimes used to place the press alongside the three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. The fourth estate refers to the watchdog role of the press, one that is important to a functioning democracy and the protection of the public.
By Melissa Anderson
The First Amendment to the Constitution covers five basic freedoms, one of which is the freedom of the press. But that freedom carries with it a responsibility to be the people’s watchdog. The traditional newspaper, however, is threatened by shrinking readership, and the watchdog role is not being filled by other forms of media.
The decline of local news outlets, even small newspapers, has a profound impact on democratic development and public life at both the individual and community levels. For example, acquisitions of and ownership changes at local TV stations and newspapers led to the nationalization and polarization of political news, having real consequences in citizens’ political knowledge, participation, and voting decisions. The loss of local newspapers due to closing leads to a decrease in local government monitoring. One side effect of this is the potential for increases in municipal borrowing costs.
“Generally, newspapers …perform best when looked at based on serving critical information needs. This is not surprising given that, unlike TV and radio stations, newspapers and online-only outlets are generally more narrowly focused on providing news. Local television stations and radio stations , on the other hand, tend to [be] broader,” Duke University found in a 2019 study.
That study found that local newspapers significantly outperform local TV, radio, and online-only outlets in news production, both in overall story output and in terms of stories that are original, local, or address a critical information need. For instance: Local newspapers accounted for roughly 25 percent of the outlets in the study’s sample but made up 50 percent of the original news stories.
Local newspapers accounted for nearly 60 percent of the local news stories in the sample used by Duke – more than all of the other outlet types combined – despite accounting for only 25 percent of the outlets included.
Local newspapers account for nearly 60 percent of the stories that meet all three criteria (original, local, addresses a critical information need), with the other outlet categories each accounting for only 10 to 15 percent of the stories that meet all three criteria.
Gallup Poll has been monitoring the trust between Americans and the media since 1972. In this time frame, Gallup found that prior to 2004 it was common for a majority of Americans to profess at least some trust in the mass media. Since then, less than half of Americans feel that way. Today only about a third of the U.S. has any trust in the Fourth Estate, a stunning development for an institution designed to inform the public and protect democracy.
With the explosion of the mass media over the past decade, especially the popularity of blogs, vlogs and social media, the American population’s rejection of the lower journalism standards comes at a crucial time. Opinion-driven reporting is becoming more and more accepted, as pundits clash for ratings. This leaves Americans wary of placing trust on the work of media institutions that have less rigorous reporting criteria than in the past.
“The predominant view among the public that news veers too far into commentary and opinion suggests that journalists should reassess their attempts to interpret the facts they are presenting. While majorities do prefer news that is mostly facts with some background and analysis, many think most news actually seems like opinion,” the American Press Institute said in 2018.
The American Press Institute has conducted studies that have shed a ray of hope for the fourth estate. The studies have found the general public is open to trusting the media more. To achieve this, efforts by the media to increase transparency, clarity, and explanation of sources will go a long way towards regaining that trust. Those efforts could also be essential in addressing fake news and misinformation, which both the public and journalists consider a major problem. Efforts to increase media literacy could also point towards a more respectful relationship between the public and media.
“We see in the survey results that public respondents with personal media experience — especially those who have taken a course on the topic or participated in media at their schools — have a better understanding of journalistic terms, more positive views of several types of media, and in many cases an easier time differentiating news and opinion. However, they have similar levels of trust and views about the direction of the news industry,” American Press Institute stated.
Overall, the results of these studies signal that newspapers are the most important producers of local news in terms of the journalistic effort being put out for local communities.
“The relative paucity of online-only local media outlets, and the relatively limited (compared with newspapers) journalistic output of these outlets suggest that online-only outlets have yet to come close to matching local newspapers as significant sources of reporting that is original, local, and addresses critical information needs,” Duke University’s study found.
The continued importance of public policy and efforts to support the viability of local newspapers is becoming more apparent through these important studies. Join the staff of the Cavalier County Republican in celebrating National Newspaper Week and the importance of having your own small community newspaper.
Thank you to the American Press Institute, Gallup, ThoughtCo., Duke University, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, and News Measures Research Project.