Do we need to call time on the Fourth Estate? Exactly what do we want from the media and journalists?

Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of British society. As long ago as 1787, Edmund Burke (an MP and a brilliant political theorist) told Parliament that ‘a Fourth Estate’ is crucial. He was talking about the absolute independence of the media from politics. Since then, it’s a notion we have come back to time and time again. Media freedom, we say, is not just a laudable aim – it’s something we should all defend.

Yet, more and more, journalism and politics are entwined, and the independent nature of our media is questioned. The same is true across the pond in the US, where some commentators have described the media as a ‘fourth branch’ of government – inseparable from the decisions and actions of the establishment.

It’s certainly true that trust in media is eroding. Research by Reuters revealed that only 43% of the UK public agree that news can be trusted, a 7% decline from 2016. The levels of trust in media varies widely from country to country, falling to a worrying 23% in South Korea,

Of course there have been attempts to counteract this. Wikitribune has attempted to build a network where journalists and commentators work side by side, and community media sources more generally are growing in popularity. But so far, none of them have met the mark – and the mainstream media is still far and away our main source of news.

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Or at least a silver lining in the black cloud of fake news. In the US, Reuters recorded an increase in trust in professional journalism, citing the public concern around fake news during the presidential election as contributing factor to this shift. There also appears to be a growing wariness around social media as a key source of accurate news. On a global level, only a quarter of respondents think social media does a good job in separating fact from fiction, compared to 40% for the news media.

The future of trusted, unbiased, reporting may lie in the hands of individual journalists. Whether it’s the mainstream media, or individual social accounts, we must recognise and scrutinise authors, separating real credible journalism from politically-influenced, self-serving versions of ‘truth’.

It’s up to all of us to facilitate this voice, and to use our own communities – our social platforms perhaps most predominantly – to share the news stories we trust, and to call out those that we don’t.


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