It has long been held that there is a “fourth estate,” or fourth power, operating in our world. It refers to the press and news media.
The term was first used in light of the traditional European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility and the commoners. British essayist Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to the Irish statesman Edmund Burke who used it in a British parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain. In the United States, the phrase “fourth estate” is often changed to the “fourth branch,” in light of the three branches of government. When referred to as the “fourth estate,” it speaks to the independence of the press; when spoken of as the “fourth branch,” it speaks to the lack of independence of the press.
Regardless of how it is used, according to a new Gallup poll, it has lost much of its influence. Here was the question: “In general how much trust and confidence to you have in the mass media – such as newspapers, TV and radio – when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly: a great deal, a fair amount, not very much or none at all?”
A stunning 39% said “none at all” and another 29% said “not very much.” That is 68% of the population expressing a lack of trust in mass media. Only 32% of Americans say they trust the mass media “a great deal” or “a fair amount” to report the news in a full, fair and accurate way. As Gallup itself noted, this makes “the current assessment of the media the grimmest in Gallup’s history.” They have been asking this question and tracking the responses since 1972.
There is a political dynamic to this as well. Among Democrats, 58% have a great deal/fair amount of trust and confidence in mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. Only 11% of Republicans concurred. In terms of age, younger Democrats had less trust than their older party members, while among Republicans, the percentage stayed consistent across generations.
As Gallup points out, this lack of confidence in the fourth estate comes at a time when trust in each of the three branches of the federal government is also low.
To make matters worse, earlier this year Gallup looked at another institution in regard to public confidence. Similar to the 32% who have confidence in the press, only 32% have confidence in churches.
All to say, the crisis of the fourth estate is the crisis of every institution. Increasingly, we don’t trust anyone but ourselves.
This article originally appeared on ChurchAndCulture.org and is reposted here by permission.