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Fourth Estate Soon Will Need the Third

January 10th, 2014 by dk

Twice in the past month I’ve been told stories about people’s children who are studying journalism in school because they “really love to write.” The best response I could come up with was, “Yes, but why journalism?”

I meant to say there’s more to journalism than writing, but that’s better than what I was thinking. The second time it happened, I was imagining a parent telling me that their son wants to build skyscrapers because he’s not afraid of heights and would enjoy being interviewed on television from a just-finished top-floor balcony. Yes, there is some of that, but it’s a relatively small part of the job.

Writing is the part of journalism that people see, but it’s not the largest or the most essential skill being practiced. Reporters — often with help from their editors — must exercise a precise mix of curiosity and rectitude to succeed. You have to be able to tell a story, but you also must be able to keep a secret. It’s “giddy up” and “hold your horses,” both at the same time.

And it’s hard.

A reporter I worked with in California told me pointedly, “I earn my keep less by what I write than what I know not to write.” Cultivating sources takes patience. He knew how to wait for the big fish to swallow the little fish who had already swallowed his hook. He learned early in his career how to interview, then how to listen, and finally how to wait. Each skill made him more valuable to his publisher and his readers.

Bloggers mistake that patience for timidity or self-censorship, but it’s not. It’s the central rigor of the profession.

I wrongly asserted to a University of Oregon class in 2005 that journalism is better understood as a trade than a profession. I said it to emphasize the repetition associated with the craft, but I overlooked the code of ethics that elevates the good work. I wish I could track down those 30 students and retract what I said, or say it in a different way.

Wanting to write is a lousy reason to become a journalist, especially these days. Wanting to understand is better, but wanting to find out is the best. Having a publisher standing behind you helps. Behind that stands an ethic, a tradition, an institution, an estate.

Since 1787, journalism has been referred to as the fourth estate. Nobility, clergy, and commoners were recognized as the centers — the estates — of power in Medieval society. Unlike the first two, the third group had no means for gathering and unifying their voice and will, requiring a fourth estate. A free press empowers the commoners, but also hold all three estates accountable.

To that point, I was glad to see a section-front story this week that righted a possible wrong. An artist’s submission for Springfield’s Emerald Art Center was deemed too controversial for an exhibit and so was refused. Instead, the work, the artist and the rejection were featured prominently in this newspaper, along with the exhibit’s selection criteria and quotes from several current and past board members of Emerald Art Center.

It was a fine piece of journalism, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the gallery properly exercised its (nobility) rights or whether the rejected (commoner) artist had been wronged. Kudos to Register-Guard reporter Randi Bjornstad for an even-handed portrayal.

Turning back for a moment to holiday party patter, people are wondering aloud more and more whether journalism can survive the onslaught of the Information Age. I’m learning to insist that question be asked differently.

Will journalists be missed for their writing? No. There will always be enough people who “love to write” and do it well. Will they be missed for their ethics? I hope so, and the sooner the better.

The fourth estate has been giving voice to the third for about a quarter of a millennium, “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” The time may be upon us for commoners to return the favor and insist on an unfettered press to represent their interests.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs

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