fourth estate


fourth estate (noun, often capitalized F&E)
/ˈfɔrθ ɪˈsteɪt/


  • used to describe the press and news media, acknowledging their significant role in society.
  • refers broadly to the journalistic profession and its members.
  • the people and organizations who report the news.
  • refers to the collective body of journalists and news media that influence public opinion and monitor government actions.

Example Sentences

  1. The role of the fourth estate is crucial in maintaining a healthy democracy.
  2. As a member of the Fourth Estate, she has a responsibility to report the news accurately.
  3. During crises, the fourth estate ensures the public receives accurate information.
  4. The fourth estate’s integrity is crucial for maintaining transparency and accountability.
  5. A free fourth estate is essential for effectively monitoring government actions.

Origin and History

The term “fourth estate” emerged from the European concept of the three estates of the realm: the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the commoners (Third Estate). This classification was prevalent in medieval Europe and reflected the main divisions in society.

Early Attributions

Thomas Carlyle’s Attribution to Edmund Burke

One of the most well-known attributions of the term is by Thomas Carlyle, who, in his book “On Heroes and Hero Worship” (1841), cited Edmund Burke as saying, “There were three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.” However, there is no concrete evidence that Burke actually coined this phrase, and it may have been a misattribution by Carlyle.

Henry Brougham

Another plausible origin points to Henry Brougham, a British statesman, who is reported to have used the term in the House of Commons around 1823 or 1824. Charles Ross, a parliamentary reporter, supported this claim by mentioning hearing Brougham use the phrase, which subsequently garnered significant attention.

Thomas Macaulay

In 1828, Thomas Macaulay, a British historian and politician, used the term in his essay on “Constitutional History of England,” referring to the gallery where reporters sat as a “fourth estate of the realm.”

William Hazlitt

In 1821, English writer William Hazlitt applied the term to the journalist William Cobbett in his essay “Table Talk; or, Original Essays.” Hazlitt described Cobbett as a powerful individual in the political landscape, likening him to a “fourth estate.”

Broader Usage and Evolution

Over time, the term evolved to exclusively refer to the press and journalism. By the 19th century, it was widely accepted that the press played a crucial role in shaping public opinion and holding the powerful accountable. This watchdog function became integral to democratic societies, emphasizing the press’s influence alongside the traditional estates.

Alternative Meanings

Michel de Montaigne’s Lawyers

An earlier, less known usage by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 proposed that a “fourth estate” could refer to lawyers who were seen as selling justice to the highest bidder, thus needing regulation.

The Proletariat

In the 18th century, Henry Fielding referred to the “mob” or common people as a “fourth estate” in society, highlighting the significant influence of the general populace.

Modern Implications

In contemporary times, the term “fourth estate” has sometimes taken on an ironic tone due to declining public trust in the media. Despite this, the foundational role of the press as a guardian of democracy remains acknowledged. The rise of digital media and the internet has also transformed the landscape, leading to a more networked and diversified “fourth estate.”

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