The mass media are crucial in nation building. Governments can hardly survive without effective use of the mass media. The press are so powerful in any society that Edmund Burke, an 18th century politician first described them as the “Fourth Estate” of the realm, referring to the three major powers in Medieval times in European society which are the Lords (or Nobles), the Clergy, and the Commons. Burke described the press sitting in the gallery in the parliament as the most powerful of all estates when compared with the other three estates in the British realm. Today, the mass media are still called the fourth estate of the realm, the other estates being the executive, legislature and the judiciary.
According to Gentiane Pacarizi, in an article posted on Youth Time magazine, this term, also known as “fourth power” describes media ability to significantly influence the system. It is attributed to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787. It was Thomas Carlyle, who in his book, On Heroes and Hero Worship, described the exact words: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”
The mass media have continued to play the “fourth estate” function in the society through their informative and surveillance roles, including holding leaders accountable through indepth, investigative reporting. The digital age has expanded the media roles beyond mainstream media to citizen journalism environment. As Pacarizi adds, “While traditional media continues to be the fourth estate, technology has given rise to alternative entry points for non-traditional media where journalism is not exclusive to mainstream media, but inclusive of every potential citizen. It is said that in the digital era, every Internet user has a printing press.”
This is a nutshell insight on why the press is referred to as the “fourth estate” of the realm. This underscores the relevance of the press in any society.