Social media and the evolution of the fourth estate

With the spread of internet access, and of social media use,journalists have had to deal with two identity crises related to their role as the “fourth estate”.

The first identity crisis relates to their own positions of power as the other estates of power (which number far more than three) no longer rely on the media to communicate with citizens, diminishing the power of the media as middleman.

Secondly, the ‘people formerly known as the audience’ have become an important source of power in their own right, able to form organisations and campaigning groups at the drop of a Facebook group,
start runs on banks or collapse emergency lines.

The faces of power are changing, and the fourth estate is changing too.

Journalists are, slowly, beginning to acknowledge that the source of their power is changing. Letting go of power is hard, and journalists are particularly poor at doing so. But it is happening.

In a networked information ecology, journalists no longer hold the keys to the gates. When news breaks, it’s out, and the editor who strives to hold it back is fighting against the tide.

In the UK, for example, I wonder how long the tabloid and middle market press would have ignored the phone hacking scandal, were it not for the story trending across social media platforms, as users
organised to target newspaper advertisers. Similarly, injunctions on news media to “hold the gates” fail to work when a hundred thousand Tweeps each control gates of their own.

When Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger combined parliamentary privilege with the power of a tweet to help break a story on the dumping of toxic waste he was implicitly acknowledging this shift in power.

When Trushar Barot at the BBC’s UGC hub told me that social network users were derailing the plans of election campaigners, he was recognising the same dynamic at work.

Often, news production is an uneasy alliance between newsmakers and those who report it. Events are staged, press releases churned, sources you can count on for a soundbite are over-used, and column inches are filled. The journalist can look like they are holding power to account, while it is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

You could write a recipe for these news stories on the back of a postcard:

  1. Take one mildly controversial statement from someone in a
    position of power
  2. Add someone you can rely upon to over-react to that statement
  3. Mix in some background and a more authoritative figure, and leave to cook.

Now that recipe is fast becoming stale — and journalists know it. Users are asking deeper questions, gathering information themselves, making connections, and saying “What about this?”

Journalists like Paul Lewis — also at The Guardian — are learning to listen, and getting great stories as a result: undercover policemen in the environmental movement; security guards accused of causing the death of a deportee; the real story behind the death of a newspaper vendor.

But the power of the former audience is a power that needs to be held to account too, and the rise of liveblogging is teaching reporters how to do that: reacting not just to events on the ground, but the reporting of those events by the people taking part: demonstrators and police, parents and politicians all publishing their own version of events — leaving journalists to go beyond documenting what is happening, and instead confirming or debunking the rumours surrounding that.

So the role of journalist is moving away from that of gatekeeper and — as Axel Bruns argues — towards that of gatewatcher: amplifying the voices that need to be heard, factchecking the MPs whose blogs are 70% fiction or the Facebook users scaremongering about paedophiles.

But while we are still adapting to this power shift, we should also recognise that that power is still being fiercely fought-over. Old laws are being used in new ways; new laws are being proposed to reaffirm previous relationships. Some of these may benefit journalists — but ultimately not journalism, nor its fourth estate role. The journalists most keenly aware of this — Heather Brooke in her pursuit of freedom of information; Charles Arthur in his campaign to ‘Free Our Data’ — recognise that journalists’ biggest role as part of the fourth estate may well be to ensure that everyone has access to information that is of public interest, that we are free to discuss it and what it means, and that — in the words of Eric S. Raymond — “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow“.



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