Media as the "Fourth Estate"

Access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons. First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a "checking function" by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

In the United States, the media is often called the fourth branch of government (or "fourth estate"). That's because it monitors the political process in order to ensure that political players don't abuse the democratic process.

Others call the media the fourth branch of government because it plays such an important role in the fortunes of political candidates and issues. This is where the role of the media can become controversial. News reporting is supposed to be objective, but journalists are people, with feelings, opinions and preconceived ideas.

How Media Helps Shape Public Opinion

A clever choice of words can make things seem different than they are. For instance, during the Vietnam War, the Defense Department of the United States used many misleading phrases in news reports. Instead of "forced transfer of civilians" they said "relocation", and instead of "lies" they said "elements in the credibility gap." By using carefully chosen phrases, the Defense Department made their war efforts seem less harmful to the people in the United States. They aren't "vouchers", they are "opportunity scholarships"; it's not "tax cuts", it's "tax relief."

If we didn't know better, we'd think that the dogs have gone crazy and started attacking humans in unprecendented numbers (ala Hitchcock's "The Birds"), but in fact dog attacks on people are down . It's simply that the Diane Wipple story has drawn public attention (and media focus) to the dog-bites-man story.

Media's Influence on Politics

The influence of the mass media affects politics in the United States greatly. The public's point of view is changed by the way the news is reported. When the public's views are affected, the voting polls are too. In turn, when votes are changed, different public officials are elected. The government officials are the men and women who make the laws and generally run the country. The mass media is at the beginning of a long chain, but nonetheless, the media has a powerful effect on politics in the United States.

Role of the media during the election cycle and beyond...

Consequences of "media politics"...