The fourth estate is a term you used to hear more often in reference to American politics. These days, it has to be explained. It's not a hard concept. The media takes responsibility for sharing objective information with the American people so that they can make informed decisions.
Perhaps the reason we don’t hear that term so much anymore is because our news media is failing.
Liberal media outlets may have mentioned Donald Trump’s retweets of nationalist group Britain First’s Islamaphobic content, but in Great Britain, the social media move sparked outrage.
Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, called the retweet flat-out wrong, and Trump was later questioned by British news anchor Piers Morgan about the appropriateness of the tweet. He appealed to ignorance, citing that he was unfamiliar with the group before sharing their content. But you wouldn’t have known how far the ripple effect from those tweets traveled here in the US.
Britain is one of our closest allies. And yet, few Americans have much of a clue what is going on in that not-so-far-away part of the world. The National Health Service (NHS), for example, has asked surgery patients, even cancer patients scheduled for operations in November and December to wait for operations into late January at the earliest because of an influx of flu and other cases.
And these are just examples from Great Britain. It’s a big wide world out there.
Trump Is a Media Sweetheart
Regardless of what he might say about the media, Donald Trump thrives on attention. As president, he's getting it, and the media are in some ways pandering to him. Certainly, he's a story—several stories. However, the way that a polarized nation has reacted to him motivates news providers to keep cameras on Trump at all times for…wait for it. Ratings.
Ratings may measure how many people tune in, but they don’t quantify whether the media are sharing good information. Yes, they are a success metric, but ratings should not be the determining factor between whether the people are informed or not.
2017 saw multiple humanitarian disasters -- some of them extremely close to home. Yet media coverage is delayed and limited. In the US Virgin Islands, a place with “United States” in the name, infrastructure is broken following hurricanes, and yet you hear nothing about it on the news.
But Wait, There’s More
Never mind the blind eye American news media has cast on places where (gasp) the people don’t look like us. By the way, that’s not even an accurate statement anymore because the majority of America is no longer white.
In Yemen, people are dying in conflict nearly every day. Saudi Arabia has led a campaign against Huthi forces in the region that dates back to 2015, and yet there is barely a whisper of this on American news. To-date, more than 12,000 people have been killed.
The situation has been declared a crisis by the United Nations. BBC reports tell in detail of the chaos and horror that has defined life for close to 19 million Yemenis enduring constant air strikes and raids. What of it in the US? We are clueless — better to watch a favorite actor reiterate what a nincompoop our president is. Is that really news?
Remember the nuclear meltdown that happened in Japan in 2011? Typically, you would think that the words “nuclear meltdown” would trigger some media response. What happened when engineers confirmed the cause of the meltdown and revealed valuable information about the seriousness of nuclear material leaked from the plants in 2017?
US news media was busy with other stories. The only nuclear meltdowns Americans heard about came from the White House cook staff failing to provide Donald Trump with a greasy enough burger to mimic McDonald's.
It’s Up to Us
Because we know this to be the case, we’ve got to take the business of being informed into our own hands. We have to begin to unpack other sources.
The world is a smaller place today than ever before thanks to the internet. BBC, Mother Jones, Reuters, Vice, and other internationally sensitive news agencies do cover these issues. It’s your job to seek them out.
The free market may not be an environment that promotes good reporting when all people want to hear about is domestic issues. But that doesn't mean there aren't stories we need to understand. We are, after all, citizens of the Earth as much as we are Americans.