Engagement through social media endangers the Fourth Estate

Danielle van Dalen

Auckland, May 11, 2020

It is easy to complain about the news and its stories of political mayhem, tragedy, and messy world affairs. It is also easy to forget the importance of the news media industry to maintaining a strong democratic society.

Government to account

Media are referred to as the “fourth estate“ because of their role in holding the government accountable. Their role is to help balance the power of information between politicians (who usually hold important information) and the rest of us.

That is, with their knowledge and understanding of the political system and proximity to Parliament, reporters are able to ask politicians the tough questions, challenge mistakes or explanations, and highlight issues that you or I might have missed.

The Government currently holds more power than it did just a few months ago through the emergency powers enacted in response to Covid-19.

The other side of social media

These powers mean that Government must be even more accountable, transparent, and trustworthy than on any normal day. But for this to be done well, the media must participate.

While it is nice to see politicians in a relaxed environment, when the Prime Minister jumps online for an impromptu Facebook Live about the Governments response to Covid-19, it creates a problem for the proper functioning of the fourth estate, just as it is when the President of the US posts policy positions on his Twitter page.

Social media gives politicians the power to speak directly to the people, but it also allows politicians to promote their version of events and frame their decisions the way they want to, circumventing traditional platforms that come with reporter’s challenges.

Without questioning like this, mistakes, misinterpretation, and bungling of policy decisions can be ignored. Which means that when the media does have the opportunity to ask about discrepancies in the Government’s definition of elimination, for example, they need to make the most of it, or face weakening their own role and responsibilities.

A recent critique that the media “seem far too chummy with the Prime Minister instead of fulfilling their role as the watchdog for society” from Senior Journalism Lecturer at Massey University Steve Elers, should concern us.

Challenging the PM

To the Government’s credit, the Prime Minister maintained her Tuesday morning media interviews throughout lockdown. The often-tense engagement between the Prime Minister and radio hosts as they debate different policies is encouraging.

It is in these moments that she is challenged, or has to talk out the nuance of policy that previously might not have been so clear, that our democracy is strengthened. However, these Tuesday morning media interviews are not required by law. If it’s too difficult, or unhelpful, it could easily be suspended – as other methods of accountability already have been.

Social cohesion 

The importance of social cohesion has been highlighted during this lock down.

This is generally a good thing, but when effective media questioning and challenging of the government is forgotten in favour of social cohesion we need to ask if we are going too far.

The cost to the functioning of our democracy is too great to simply ignore the weakening of the fourth estate and its role in our democracy.

Danielle van Dalen is a Researcher at the Auckland-based Maxim Institute.

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