Proposal to Upgrade Our 4th Estate
French thinkers, before the French Revolution in what historians call its Ancien Régime, divided society into three estates: the First Estate (clergy); the Second Estate (nobility); and the Third Estate (crude commoners or the proletariat).
The notion of a Fourth Estate refers to the journalistic press corp. It dates to English novelist Henry Fielding. Have you see the uproarius movie of his novel Tom Jones ? Writing in Covent Garden (1752) Fielding wrote:
...more than three estates, namely, Kings, Lords, and Commons... passing by in silence that very large and powerful body which form the fourth estate in this community... The Mob.
Either way, the Fourth Estate was recognized as potentially more important and powerful than the other estates. Why? For reasons that busy, complacent Americans never learned or have now largely forgot:
In a republic, the rule of law is exercised not by raw, totalitarian power, or mob rule, but through public tolerance of laws and confidence in institutions making and administering them - the government. Historically, public understanding of governmental units has been best presented by the media.
America's Thomas Jefferson once said, "The advertisement is the most truthful part of a newspaper," but he also held that, Where the press is free and everyman able to read, all is safe."
4th Estate Shortcomings
Does the journalistic press corp need upgrading? Not in the sense of controversy -that has always existed, and remember the press must be free. Confidence in journalism, however, may be at an all time low due to perceived faith in journalists' ability to understand what they are reporting in today's increasingly complex and specialized world. At the very least, some existing, journalistic ethics should be applied to every report:
Check every fact reported; (well, at least most of them try)
Find and report every side of a story possible; (sounds good, have rarely seen it)
Report without bias, illustrating many aspects of a conflict rather than siding with one; (again, sounds good, have yet to see it)
Approach researching and reporting a story with a balance between openmindedness and skepticism. (peer review by editorial staff is anything but independent)
Use careful judgment when organizing and reporting information. (requires competency in the subject matter)
Not report on a subject in which the journalist has a personal stake or bias that cannot be set aside. (peer review by editorial staff is anything but independent)
How can journalists exercise careful judgement in reporting without competency in the underlying topic? Military arts and scientific topics come immediately to mind, but there is no end to competency needs.
Two Proposals for Upgrading the 4th Estate
* All journalists should either be certified in competency for topics they can ably report, or disclaim competency in the body of their report.
**Independent (of employer) peer reviews should be conducted randomly by the national certifying authority (journalism industry) on an annual basis in order to retain certification. Reviews should evaluate a journalist's reports for conformity to key ehtical considerations in addition to those universally codified for U.S. journalists by their industry watchdog.