January 25, 2021 Courtney Napier

We Must Abolish the Fourth Estate

The stories we tell matter. So does who tells them. And so does the relationship of storytellers to power and people. Journalist and publisher meditates here on becoming a trustworthy storyteller.

It’s time we abolish the Fourth Estate
By Cierra Hinton

Last week, as we watched white supremacists storm the Capitol, journalists across the country stated their disbelief in what they were seeing—as if journalism did not play a role in growing that chaos.

I’ve been watching The Crown lately. For those unfamiliar, it’s a TV drama that follows the political rivalries and romance of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the events that shaped the second half of the Twentieth Century. For a history-loving millennial like myself, it’s solid entertainment.

On the show, the role that the press—or as they say on the show, the Fourth Estate—plays in society is what struck me the most as a Black, Southern woman working in publishing. For much of the series, the press reports on the queen, the royal family, the prime minister, but seldom do you hear the press talk about the people, except to say how they feel about the queen.

The show is, after all, called The Crown. So, that’s to be expected. I bring this up not to critique the show, but to instead point out how disappointingly familiar the whole thing is.

I bring this up because that absence reminds me so much of our media today.

It’s time to abolish the Fourth Estate.

This summer was a frustrating time to be a Black person working in journalism, as protests against white supremacy, racial injustice, and police brutality gained traction in national headlines. One thing that made me especially upset was the way many in the media rushed to denounce violence and harm towards the press at the hands of police. The outrage was warranted, but where was that same outrage when the folks being brutalized were non-journalists? Where was the outrage when the people being harmed were ordinary Black folks? Why did so many hide behind objectivity until other journalists were the ones getting body-slammed, tazed, and pepper-sprayed?

Did we not see ourselves in Philando Castile? Did we not see our children in Tamir Rice? If journalists see themselves as separate and apart from regular people and their communities—as members of the untouchable proverbial Fourth Estate—then why should folks trust us to tell them the news?

This disconnect between the press, the people, the news, and the communities we report on runs deep.

This disconnect manifests as distrust.

Only in acknowledging where we’re failing and missing the mark do we begin to reconnect, and that requires deciding to do journalism differently.

We are disconnected in how we talk about race and privilege.

Since 2016, we have talked about the Trump voter in every term except for the one that mattered: white.

When we fail to name whiteness in our reporting we are at best complicit in the active practice of white supremacy, and at worst, we are upholding the spread of values that lead to events like those that took place last week.

When we fail to call these forces out for what they are we create news that can never be fully accessible to non-white people. That harm requires work to undo. Building trust with non-white communities means bringing nearly half of the American population back into the conversation.

What future does the media have if the “intended” audience continues to be mostly white while our communities are not?

We are disconnected from the power that we cover.

Journalism does not just keep a record of what is happening, it covers power, and upholds that power by speaking it into being. Let me say that again: We uphold power to the benefit of the same powerful figures we claim to hold accountable.

Newsrooms need to start covering the people’s power, and not focus solely on institutional and systemic power or the existing power of the privileged.

When we are speaking about who is at the top, what we’re really talking about is who has the power.

Journalists need to cover people-power like it is the power that drives our democracy—because it is.

What if we covered how people are coming together and organizing to make change in their communities with the same energy of how lawmakers are handing down policies? What if we replaced stories of party infighting with community joy and organizing victories?

Publishing reporting that lets folks know how their neighbors are civically engaged, fighting back, and holding power to account motivates them to do the same. It lets them know that if and when they take action themselves they will not be alone.

When we see examples of how people everywhere are working with their neighbors we become more invested in our own communities—and we have a model to do so.

We are disconnected in our revenue models.

Running a journalism organization is hard—and costly. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The business of news—whether it’s funded through advertising, sponsorship, special sections, or grants—makes us dependent on revenue streams that bring in more money than our consumer revenue streams do. But when we are more focused on selling our product or amplifying our reach to other businesses and corporations than we are on producing storytelling that individuals value and want to pay for, it shows.

It’s a slower build, but when we prioritize growing consumer-based revenue, it forces us to be more responsive to people—and their power. And publishers, trust me, it also grows our reach. It grows loyalty to our news. It gives a clear sign that the people trust your news.

Changing how we talk about race and privilege, covering people power, and growing consumer revenue are just some of the ways that we begin to connect with our communities while growing a thriving local news ecosystem. There is no better place to abolish the Fourth Estate and tear down the wall that keeps us separated from the community than right here at the local level.

There are already so many of us that are invested in creating journalism that is responsive to the needs of our communities. Let’s keep that energy afloat, and use it to rebuild our practices from the ground up.

 

This is a written version (published in Scalawag Magazine) of a talk given at The NC Local News Summit hosted by the NC Local News Workshop. The Summit is in its inaugural year and offered NC journalists and national allies a chance to share and brainstorm together on successes, challenges, and opportunities as we collectively envision the future of local news.

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