Scrutinising the Fourth Estate

By Melissa Reid
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By Melissa Reid.

This article is part of our focus on Cultural Shift and Human Rights. For more on this theme, click here.

“The media play an enormously important role in the protection of human rights.”

A fundamental characteristic of a functioning democracy is its separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The notion of the “fourth estate” has long been recognised as another important arm of democracy, holding a level of influence equal to the traditional three arms of democracy. The fourth estate – the media – has the capacity to influence policy direction and public opinion. Unlike the traditional three however, the media can go largely unscrutinised and is not typically held to the same level of accountability. This is due to the media’s role in holding the other three estates to account and leaves the media exposed, as no body is technically tasked with holding it to account. Our world is framed by the facts we are exposed to. To ensure freedom of the press and to ensure media reports do not infringe upon the human rights of any person, we need a shift in the culture of the media industry.

An independent media is vital for the protection and promotion of human rights, yet we are rarely aware of the personal relationships and interests of those involved in the media industry. The media, in particular social media and citizen journalism, does not have to declare a “conflict of interest” as other fields largely do such as in politics and bureaucracy. With the spread of online and citizen journalism, the ability to manipulate ideas behind a computer further removes the author from the audience, enabling decreased accountability and transparency. At a minimum, the media should be a beacon for the protection and promotion of the right to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It is important, particularly in the online age, that this does not infringe upon the rights of others.

Quick sound bites and fast-paced journalism stem from the need to remain relevant in such a competitive environment. This results in easily digestible content with reduced rigour for research

However the media’s relationship with human rights penetrates much deeper. How the media promotes or impedes human rights is influenced by a variety of factors from the language used through to the character of the media organisation. We need to look at how the media industry is held to account for the media it produces. As the fourth estate, the level of scrutiny applied to the industry and individuals needs to be discussed with all human rights considered to support an independent and ethical media environment. The Kony campaign and asylum seekers are prominent examples of how the media industry is able to influence public opinion and how this impacts upon the human rights of the population groups linked to these issues.

Information changes hands, crosses borders and can be referenced as soon as it is published. Traditional media, such as print, radio and television, are competing in an increasingly complex and decentralised environment due to ever-expanding social media networks and accessibility of information. Practically anyone, anywhere with access to the Internet can publish uncensored information. The Council of Europe explored the impacts of the new online media environment and explains how growth in access to the internet has seen a rise in citizen journalism. Their 2011 report notes that citizen journalism legitimises “the use of amateurs in a weakened media industry and also pose[s] new questions about reliability and integrity in the information they provide.” We now live in a world of the 24-hour news cycle, learning about news events as they unfold. Quick sound bites and fast-paced journalism stem from the need to remain relevant in such a competitive environment. This results in easily digestible content with reduced rigour for research.

The video neglected to illustrate the complexities of humanitarian crises and portrayed international efforts as a waste of time

Operating across a platform including print, radio, television and social media, the media industry largely consists of media organisations. Non-media organisations also use the media platform to communicate with the public through media-based campaigns as do individuals, promoting personal positions through blogging, tweeting, posting and Instagraming. Influential media campaigns (either overt, calling for action, or subtle, being disguised as independent, unbiased reporting) possess a profound ability to infiltrate and influence public opinion. The line between promoting a position and strictly objective media is difficult to define. As a Crikey investigation uncovered, “Journalism in Australia today is heavily influenced by commercial interests selling a product, and constrained and blocked by politicians, police and others who control the media message.” The majority of current affairs knowledge is derived from media sources, thus the knowledge attained by the public is crafted by those whom frame the media conversation to serve particular interests. At its most extreme, self-serving media coverage has been described by the London Progressive Journal as media corruption “in the form of backing governments, criticising politicians, lobbying for change or any number of self-beneficial causes”.

Knowledge is power, so it is important that knowledge is formed and communicated accurately and independently in a non-discriminatory and human rights-promoting manner. As the world grows increasingly connected and fast-paced, information is able to traverse borders and barriers almost instantly. This can feed a desire for instant access to information. Online news and social media websites support this instant gratification for information. For example, of the Facebook community of one billion (12 million strong in Australia alone), over 50 million people log in to the site each day, 55 million status updates are made per day and the average user spends 700 minutes (11.6 hours) on the site each month. Media outlets utilise this, as well as other platforms, to communicate with and influence the public in an almost instant fashion. Individuals are also provided with access to a large audience via social media platforms, which encourage people to publish information instantly without the repercussions of communicating certain information in person – a computer provides a level of protection and autonomy.

Significant amounts of information published on social media are bite-size. This dilution of information and the speed with which it is communicated assists in the quick formation of opinions on a given topic. This kind of fast-paced journalism assists in reducing the attention span of the audience, as we can become impatient waiting for more in-depth analysis and information-gathering. Slow journalism involves greater research, attention to detail and fact checking. It is less reactionary and more inclined to provide a greater illustration of the facts than fast-paced journalism.

the problem society has with asylum seekers is fabricated and formed by the media

The simplification of information can have adverse effects, as demonstrated in the Kony 2012 campaign. Kony 2012 was coordinated by Invisible Children and embraced online media platforms. It is an impressive illustration of how information can spread and influence the masses in a short period of time. Kony 2012 boiled down the facts and coaxed them in the organisation’s interests. This resulted in detrimental outcomes for the human rights of people whom were affected by the content of the campaign.


Launched in May 2012, the Kony 2012 campaign video, (largely circulated via facebook) received 90,397,501 views on Youtube within 26 days (5 – 31 March 2012). The campaign’s call to action was to make Kony famous. The rationale behind this was to garner mass international support and pressure governments to respond with military action and capture warlord Joseph Kony. The campaign was bold and it was brash. Efforts to promote the organisation’s interests and make the information accessible impacted the quality and accuracy of the information communicated. This limitation infringed upon the human rights of people impacted by the video and brought in to question the capability, or incapability of human rights bodies to adequately address human rights issues. Through illustrating the perceived failure of the International Criminal Court and the United Nations to find Joseph Kony, the campaign portrayed international bodies as inherently flawed and unable to achieve a just outcome.

The video neglected to illustrate the complexities of humanitarian crises and portrayed international efforts as a waste of time. The campaign also did not accurately illustrate the neighbouring countries to Uganda, which the LRA operated. Nor did the campaign explain that the LRA were banished from Uganda six years prior to the campaign launch. There was a missed opportunity to educate the captivated audience on such an important human rights issues. Had the organisation committed to a more honest portrayal of the facts surrounding Joseph Kony and the LRA, Invisible Children could have created a more sustainable campaign aligned with human rights through respecting the complexities of the situation. However doing so would perhaps not serve Invisible Children’s own interests.

Invisible Children are not a media organisation but they use media platforms to execute their campaigns. This requires a responsibility to ensure no harm results from their media efforts. Targeting “circumstantial activists” the campaign utilised influential, consumerist propaganda. This supported people to develop an altruistic sense of achievement with minimal personal input, or factual knowledge, encouraging the idea that you can do a lot, without doing anything; or you can be well versed on a topic with limited, factual information. The power of the media in forming public opinion is profound. Once an idea is engrained, it is difficult to shift in the mind of the individual and the collective. The Kony 2012 campaign is not unique in its ability to influence people through tailored messaging. The campaign did attract attention from more traditional media sources, impressed at the speed at which Joseph Kony became “famous”. After the initial injection of attention, interest from the broader media industry waned, as did the public’s. Unsurprisingly, this is not uncommon given the variety of news stories constantly emerging and vying for our attention.

Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers as a topic have managed to maintain the interest of politicians and the media industry, and thus the Australian public for over a decade. This is in defiance of the now common, short-lived nature of media attention to many serious humanitarian and human rights crises. A large number of media reports, and common terms associated with asylum seekers in Australia are often negative and have been so since 2001. Mainstream reporting on the issue is often derogatory and framed in half-truths, excluding the human right to seek asylum. At the end of 2012, Finn Bowen, from the London Progressive Journal, succinctly noted that “published academic literature on the subject of asylum seekers is unified in its approach: the problem society has with asylum seekers is fabricated and formed by the media.” Independent media, such as New Matilda and The Conversation, and renowned asylum seeker advocates, Julian Burnside and David Manne do speak out and publish worthy and truth-seeking articles. A variety of voices in the media is a strength of the industry, enabling the public access to different opinions in order to formulate their own. However, Alperhan Babacan, in a paper published by RMIT University, explored the shift in the Australian public’s attitude towards asylum seekers: “Unlike previous decades where asylum seekers were depicted as being worthy of our compassion, they were portrayed as … a danger and a risk to the state and its citizens.”

In 2013, media organisations external to Australia have reported on the issue and adopted a slow-journalism approach. Both the New York Times (The Impossible Refugee Boat Lift to Christmas Island) and Al Jazeera English (Interactive: Migrants’ routes to Australia) researched and published exceptional pieces on the topic. It is evident in both articles that accuracy was fundamental to their development. Both these media organisations are well placed to produce unbiased journalism as they are removed from the Australian environment, with no vested interest in how Australia addresses its international obligation towards people seeking asylum. The trending of these two articles in Australia was largely through the use of social media. As Al Jazeera English and the New York Times are not Australian publications, social media’s ability to promote and distribute these articles highlights the positive role social media plays in increasing access to information.

Not all media is negative or biased. Australia has an extensive and diverse media environment with many independent publications and academic journals and our access to information is largely unfettered. Unlike many other countries, Australia’s public owned media corporation, the ABC, is void of government propaganda and produces some of the best reporting due to its autonomy from corporate interests. This is of great value to the Australian nation. Unfortunately, the knowledge provided by academics often fails to significantly penetrate the collective conscience and frame issues in accordance with the truth, or contribute to forming a greater understanding of the truth. Whether this is due to smaller readership, the more in-depth nature of the information, or the increased difficulty in accessing the information, it is unknown. However, the mainstream media, privately owned with easier access for the public, is more exposed to the interests of external parties, corporations and capitalism for survival. So these interests, through the media’s influence, shape public opinion. This requires serious scrutiny and attention from the public and authorising entities. Operating as an additional, yet imperative vehicle for a democracy to function, and especially when considering the human rights implications, our media needs a political and social cultural shift.