What is the Fourth Estate, why is the press called the fourth estate and where does the term come from?

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The term ‘fourth estate’ dates back centuries and is thought to have originated in England.

But what is the fourth estate, and why is the news media given the strange name? Here’s what we know…

The fourth estate refers to the press for their impact on society
Getty – Contributor

What is the Fourth Estate?

The term refers to the press and news media in its explicit and implicit ability to frame the issues of the day.

Although not directly part of the political system, as it often challenges it, it can wield significant power and have a social influence and bring about changes in policies.

The fourth estate is seen as the established news media which contains an educated group of professional journalists.

Sometimes seen as a branch of that or more often as the fifth estate is what has become known as Citizen Journalism where anyone can upload their own thoughts or ideas onto the internet through blog site or websites such as YouTube.

Whereas the fourth estate will be heavily regulated and monitored the fifth estate will not be bound by similar standards of reporting.

Why is the media called the fourth estate?

The term hails from the European concept of the three estates of the realm – the clergy, the nobility and the commoners.

Power in most democratic countries is divided between the legislature, executive and judiciary.

It has come to symbolise the media or press as a segment of society that has an indirect but key role in influencing the political system.

Nowadays the term is often used as a collective noun to refer to all journalists.

Where does the term come from?

Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain.


Earlier writers have applied the term to lawyers, to the British queens consort (acting as a free agent, independent of the king), and to the proletariat.

Oscar Wilde wrote that the press had become the “only estate” that had “eaten up the other three”.

The term has been used in other contexts throughout history; in the 1700s Henry Fielding described the fourth estates as “The Mob”.

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